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Archive for the ‘Liturgical Seasons’ Category

Though I enjoy watching new movies, I love to watch certain movies again and again, depending on the calendar.

In the fall I imagine I am sitting in Notre Dame Stadium, chanting with the crowd “Rudy, Rudy.” At Christmas I am shopping in Bedford Falls and discussing my wonderful life with George Bailey. As spring approaches, I am helping Ray Kinsella plow up his corn and build his field of dreams.

The Passion of the ChristI look forward to these films and the happy mood they put me in. However, every Lent I make a concerted effort to watch Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Unlike the other films, this one puts me in a somber, reflective mood that’s perfect as I prepare for Holy Week.

It helps that Mel Gibson and his production team took great measures to create a realistic portrayal of Roman-occupied Jerusalem and the dramatic events during that first Holy Week.

Artistic inspiration
When you watch Gibson’s film, it looks like you have stepped into a painting by Caravaggio, an Italian painter during the Baroque period. Like the painter, the filmmakers used multiple lighting schemes, such as the shades of blue in Gethsemane or shades of gold in the Temple, to create specific moods or “emotional realities” throughout the film. The use of slow motion techniques adds to these moods.

To stage the dramatic last scene of the crucifixion sequence, Gibson used the painting “The Pieta” by French artist William Bouguereau for inspiration. After Jesus is taken down from the cross, Mary holds the crucified Christ. The painting and the final scene show Mary, not looking at Jesus, but straight at us with a far-away look in her eyes. She is strong; she does not break down like other women, but the pain is there. “Both the painting and this scene have the same essence, the same look in Mary’s eyes, sort of a pleading grief, full of pain,” says Gibson in the DVD extras.

Languages and subtitles
The film’s dialogue was recorded in two of the languages spoken at that time: Aramaic and Latin, along with English subtitles. “Using Aramaic and Latin brings people backward in time” says Rev. William J. Fulco, a Jesuit language scholar who served as the film’s translator. “We are like flies on the wall to the Jesus event.”

The filmmakers also used the languages to artistically convey a depth to Jesus’ personality and his conviction to complete his task. When Jesus appears before Pontius Pilate for the first time, Pilate addresses him in Aramaic. As a good administrator stationed in Jerusalem for eleven years, Pilate would have known the local dialect. Pilate asks him in Aramaic “Are you the King of the Jews?” However, Jesus answers Pilate in Latin. The filmmakers wanted to show that Jesus knew what Pilate was doing and that he was trying to beat Pilate at his own game.

Storytelling
Throughout the story arc that starts in Gethsemane and ends on Calvary, there are short flashbacks to earlier times in Jesus’ life. When Pilate is washing his hands, Jesus recalls the day before when he washed his hands before the Last Supper and broke bread with his disciples. As Jesus nears the large hill of Calvary, he remembers standing on a hill, teaching the people to “love your enemies” and to pray for them.

One of the most poignant moments is when Jesus carries the cross and falls for the second time. His mother Mary runs to him, just as she did many years ago when a young Jesus tripped and fell. “I’m here,” she tells him. Jesus, like all children, confides in his mother. Taking her face in his hand, he utters a line from the Book of Revelation: “See, mother, I make all things new.”

Special effects
The filmmakers used special makeup and visual effects to realistically depict the wounds Jesus received during the scourging and the crucifixion. Makeup sessions for Jim Caviezel (who portrayed Jesus) lasted anywhere between three to eight hours. During this time, the makeup artists applied large sheets of rubber prosthetic wounds all over his body. Then in post production work, computer artists applied “digital skin” patches that covered up the wounds. As a Roman guard swung a cane or a digital whip and appeared to hit Jesus, the skin patch was digitally wiped away, revealing the artificial wounds underneath.

“One of the biggest struggles was trying to make the make the makeup as real as possible and at the same time retain a human element, something the audience could connect to,” says Christien Tinsley, one of the makeup artists.

Whenever I watch The Passion of the Christ, I feel shock, despair, embarrassment and amazement. The film helps me understand, ever so slightly, how terrible the crucifixion must have been for our Lord.

Since he endured this suffering for me, the least I can do every Lenten season is watch the film, try to understand what he went through, and then dedicate my life to be more like him. That is my reel life journey.

It can be yours, too.

CF


Originally published in the March 19, 2010 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2010 Christopher Fenoglio

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Amid the millions of twinkling lights decorating our Christmas trees and homes, only one light matters: the bright, clear light of the Star of Bethlehem.

Among the colorfully and carefully wrapped boxes and bags, only one gift matters: the gift of love embodied in the tiny baby born that holy night in Bethlehem.

When we give gifts to our family and friends, in some small way we duplicate the same love God gave us through the gift of his son.

But in these tough economic times, we can’t always buy the gifts we want to give. That’s okay. The gift of time, talent and our selves often mean a great deal more to others than a wrapped gift.

So join me on an imaginary journey to the world of Christmas movies where we can help some of our film friends. (How many films do you recognize? The answers are at the end).

(1) The first place I need to go is the post office to help Joe and the guys. Every year they get bags and bags of letters addressed to Santa Claus. Usually they just wait a couple of months and then burn them, but this year Joe got a call from his brother the lawyer. He wants all the letters delivered to General Sessions Court this afternoon.

(2) I also need to deliver dinner to our next-door neighbors. They really are a nice family, though when the old man is down in the basement cussing at the furnace, we can hear him in our living room. His wife is sweet and does a great job raising her two boys, even if she goes a little overboard with their winter clothes. Anyway, since our darling hounds got loose on Christmas morning, found their way into their kitchen and demolished their turkey, the least we can do is take them a meatloaf and a cherry pie.

(3) We should take some cookies down to George at the Savings & Loan. Earlier this year when my restaurant and bar wasn’t doing too good, he let me just pay the interest on my loan. We had worked so hard to move out of that old rental and into our own home, we were afraid George would foreclose. But he understood and saw us through the tough times until business picked back up. That’s certainly worth a plate of Momma’s best biscottis.

(4) I also need to talk to my business partner about how we treat our employees. When it was just the two of us, working long hours and scrimping on operating expenses (utilities, office supplies, etc.) made a lot of sense. But ever since we hired Bob, I’m reconsidering our “profits at all costs” business practices. As partners, we have more than enough money and a responsibility to help the less fortunate. We should give Bob a raise so he can buy a nice Christmas goose for his family. I will talk to Ebby this afternoon, after I see the doctor about this pain in my jaw.

(5) Despite the inconvenience of travelling on Christmas Eve, I think we need to drive up to Vermont for the reunion. Bob can be very persuasive when he puts his mind to it; I guess that’s what made him a good captain. I hear the roads should be clear since there’s not much snow. It will be great to see everyone from the battalion, especially the Old Man. Looks like we’re still following him, wherever he wants to go.

(6) As for our other neighbors, there are lots of things I can do: Luther needs help putting Frosty on his roof, even though it’s almost Christmas. (7) Clark needs help trimming that huge tree he cut down in the forest yesterday. I hope he checks it for squirrels. (8) I’m sure Buddy needs to borrow a couple of long extension cords so he can plug in all those lights. Does he really think his house will be seen from space?

(9) I wonder how my friend Walter is doing these days. Ever since he became the general manager of that publishing company, I haven’t seen him around the neighborhood much. I know his son Michael would like to spend more time with his dad. Perhaps I could edit that new children’s book so he can get home earlier and eat dinner with his family. Spending time with children, especially during Christmas, keeps you young. It puts back some of the Christmas joy you felt when you were a kid. More grown-ups should really enjoy the holidays – like that happy fellow downtown in the green jacket and yellow tights waving at everyone.

So as we continue to celebrate the Octave of Christmas, let’s keep the spirit of Christmas alive in all we do for our family, friends and those less fortunate.

Merry Christmas everyone!

CF
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First published in the December 25, 2009 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2009 Christopher Fenoglio

Christopher Fenoglio writes and dreams of a white Christmas from his home in beautiful Bellevue, TN

ANSWERS
(1) Miracle on 34th Street (2) A Christmas Story (3) It’s a Wonderful Life (4) A Christmas Carol (5) White Christmas (6) Christmas with the Kranks (7) National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (8) Deck the Halls (9) Elf

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Our children came home for Easter weekend, a wonderful time to laugh together, eat together and celebrate Mass together as a family.

To prepare for the weekend, I worked a few hours to organize the basement—tidying up the empty nest, so to speak. I wanted to create more “hang out” space for the college students and their friends.

One project involved boxing up old books and rearranging our bookshelves. With the children out of the house during the school year, many more of my books could replace theirs in the main bookshelf upstairs in the living room.

Off the shelves came The Hungry Caterpillar and other bedtime picture books. Next went their grade school story books like Green Eggs and Ham and Strega Nona. Finally I packed up the middle school readers like the Goosebumps and Animorphs series.

Onto the shelves went some of my favorites: the collections of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, a few baseball anthologies, a number of Nashville and Tennessee histories, and assorted Superman and Batman comic books. There was even room for Linda’s Chicken Soup for the Soul books.

It struck me how some stories are good for the first reading, but there’s no interest in rereading it. Once you know what happens, you move on to the next book.

Other stories, however, really touch our hearts on many different levels. Those are the books I want on my shelves, stories to read again and again.

VelveteenRabbit250As I was boxing up the children’s books, one of them caught my eye—The Velveteen Rabbit. The book was recently adapted into a film directed by Michael Landon, JR. He uses a family-friendly combination of live action and animation to gently expand the story beyond the scope of Margery Williams’ classic tale. Since I had never read the book all the way through, I stopped working and read for a while.

Once upon a time on Christmas morning, a little boy woke to find a velveteen rabbit in his stocking. The rabbit was soft and cuddly, and soon the boy played with him every day. This made the rabbit very happy, for he liked to play with the boy. During one play session outdoors, the velveteen rabbit saw real rabbits and marveled at how they twitched their noses and bounded away on their hind legs.

One day, the boy became very ill with scarlet fever and clung to the rabbit for comfort. After the boy got well, the doctor told Nana to discard all of the boy’s bed linens and cloth toys. The house had to be cleaned to prevent the fever from returning. The velveteen rabbit was put into a sack with the rest of the items for the incinerator.

But the rabbit was special, for the little boy had loved the velveteen rabbit with all his heart. It was this love that turned the velveteen rabbit into a real bunny. He hopped into the forest on his new hind legs and began a new life with his real rabbit friends.

Now when I was boxing up the children’s books, some of them were attached to pleasant memories of our children—a hearty laugh, a sleepy nod, a contented smile.

This book, however, was attached to a personal memory. Decades ago, I had a cuddly soft doggie with floppy cloth ears and black button eyes. After a couple of my childhood years, the fur became worn, an eye was lost, and all the leg stuffing was squeezed down into four large paws.

My mother knew when it was time for her young son to part with the toy. In her own kind and loving way, she suggested that I give the dog to my new baby sister.

I slowly agreed and handed the dog to my Mom so that Maria could look at him in the playpen. “You’re a good big brother,” said Mom.

John Eldredge in his book Epic—The Story God is Telling and the Role that is Yours to Play (which Maria gave to me) says that “story is the language of the heart.” Our life is a story, with a large cast of characters and lots of plot turns and twists.

In the midst of our own story, we sometimes feel like we’ve walked into a movie 40 minutes late. Confused and unsure, many lose heart.

Before that happens, Eldredge says, we need to know more about the larger story that we are in. We need to know the director and the real part that we play in this larger story.

Here in this Easter Season, we have listened to the Gospels tell The Greatest Story Ever Told. It’s an amazing story that took place nearly 2000 years ago, but still finds ways to resonate anew in our lives.

For God so loved the world, he gave us his only begotten son, who died for our sins. That is love. That is a love we should share.

I think there’s just enough room on my bookshelf for one more book—the family Bible. There are lots of great stories in that book.

CF
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First published in the April 17, 2009 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2009 Christopher Fenoglio

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I am alone.      

I walk along a shadowed path, a dark Lenten journey into self consideration.

Night has fallen early; I can barely see the way ahead. I stumble and fall, many times, for I am weak and unsure of my way. Where should I turn?

The black forest closes around me, tall trees of sins surround me: mighty redwoods of past transgressions on the left, massive oaks of inaction on the right.

Suddenly my feet step onto a metal sidewalk that carries me into the darkness. It slowly descends, a one-way escalator, a monstrous, mechanical movement machine, pulling me down into a deep chasm.

Like a giant indoor shopping mall, each level I pass has dozens of window displays. But instead of stores fronts, each display is a large video screen with film adaptations of my life, scenes in which I take no pride.      

I am George McFly in Back to the Future—cowardly, intimidated by aggressive people and insecure about my writing.

I am Peter Banning in Hook—so consumed by my job that I forget who I am and what’s most important in life. So focused on finances, I yell at my children when things are not going right.

Lower and lower I glide to the levels below.

I am Lester Burnham in American Beauty—restless and easily distracted by a lustful imagination. Faced with familiar temptations, I covet an irresponsible future.

I am Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind—prideful and boastful, I care more about what happens to me than others. I walk away instead of dealing with matters most important.

Deeper into the darkness I descend.

I am Peter in The Passion of the Christ—bragging that I will follow Our Lord wherever he goes. However, when faced with trouble and perhaps my own mortality, I deny His existence three times.      

I am Michael Corleone in The Godfather—first an innocent family member, then a good soldier. With moderate success, I am tempted by the power and feel the overwhelming need to control every situation, no matter the cost.

Lower and lower the steps descend to final level. A sign hangs overhead the entrance to Hades: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”   

I am Christy Nielsen in What Dreams May Come. I have died in a car accident, like my children before me. All three deaths were terrible accidents, yet my Annie blames herself for each of them. She takes her own life and ends up in Hell.

Yet Hell is not fire and brimstone. The real Hell is your life gone badly, in its worst possible state. You must spend eternity living that life, without knowing kindness, peace or love.

styx1I must find Annie in this blackest corner of Hell and convince her that she was wrong about her life. I cross a sea of faces—helpless souls crying for help. Thousands of bodies floating in the dark water claw at my boat. 

Upon reaching the shore, I walk past beached ocean liners, the steel ships broken and smoldering, their passengers trapped by flames and unbreakable chains.

Against all odds, I find Annie, my soul mate, and remind her of our love. I convince her that I will remain with her always, no matter the outcome. Her eyes open wide with recognition and her heart fills with gladness. She is lifted up and disappears to our peaceful corner of heaven.   

Yet I remain, for my sins weigh heavily upon my heart.

Softly, clearly, the sweet melody and powerful words of Rory Cooney’s song come to mind: Change our hearts, this time, your Word says it can be. Change our minds, this time, your life could make us free. We are the people your call set apart, Lord this time, change our hearts.

I acknowledge my past sins and open my sorrowful heart to God, begging for his forgiveness.

There in a dark corner, away from everything else, a light softly glows. I look and see it coming from a cave of freshly hewn rock. The stone that once covered the opening has been rolled away.

As I step inside, I see the end of a tree, a giant log rising upward toward the heavens. I step onto the timber and climb, my feet steadied by the nails pounded into the trunk.

The timber rises higher and higher, but it does not fall. It is supported by another timber that crosses underneath and holds it up. The light from above guides me home.

I feel alive again with hope, for all is forgiven. By the strength of this cross I am free.

I rise above the darkness to see the sun rise over the mountain of joy. It illuminates the world and out shines the midnight stars.

I am alone…no more.

CF
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First published in the March 20, 2009 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2009 Christopher Fenoglio.

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My need for silence started a couple of years ago after a long day at the office. The radio was blaring and my head was throbbing, so I just turned the car radio off.

After hours of long phone calls, noisy meetings, even my favorite music playing in the background, I needed some quiet time.

It took a few minutes, but the gradual effects were noticeable. No longer pounded by interruption advertising and inane DJ banter, I started to relax. The sound waves from the radio faded into other space. The only audible sounds were the hum of the engine and the harmonic tones of the tires on the pavement. Soon those sounds were replaced by the closing of the garage door and the sweet melodies of backyard songbirds.

In the silence I could hear my own thoughts again, unencumbered by the media messages that pelted my consciousness throughout the day.

E-mails, voice mails, Blackberrys, blogs. Facebook, e-book, hypertext and Twitter logs. Useful is technology, but it sometimes gets the best of me.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his recent World Day of Communications address, said that new technology, such as social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, helps facilitate our “fundamental desire” to communicate. These sites can foster friendships and understanding, but he warns that “obsessive” virtual socializing can isolate people from real interaction and deepen the digital divide by excluding those already marginalized.

Christianity Today’s senior managing editor Mark Galli shared a similar sentiment in a recent online article. He wrote that while Facebook “facilitates broad connectivity, I believe it does so at the expense of intimacy. Intimacy is what we really want. But because we are lazy and fearful creatures, we’ll settle for connectivity, because connectivity suggests intimacy but without all the bother.”

Put aside the sexual connotations of “intimacy” that our culture uses on a daily basis. Instead, think of the close, personal relationships you have with family and friends—people who know how you think, accept you for who you are and relate to you in terms you both understand.

I like Facebook. It’s a fun tool to connect with friends and classmates, share photos, read their lists of 25 random facts about themselves or finally learn what really happened on that Spring Break trip two decades ago.

But it’s also a powerful attention grabber and a malicious time sucker. It’s no replacement for the intimacy shared by good friends or the kitchen-table talks we have with family members.

Instead of talking face-to-face, people are chatting in cyberspace.

The dangers of social isolation through the media and modern technology are illustrated in three popular films:

In the future according to Pixar, Wall•E depicts 29th century men and women as inactive, fatty blobs who don’t use any muscles. Centuries ago they left Earth on a large space cruise ship so that robots could clean up the trash and make the planet habitable again. While the humans wait, they sip gallons of liquid nourishment, ride around on hover machines and talk to other people only through video screens.

One day a robot named Wall•E hops a ride on a rocket and boards the space cruiser. Through fortunate misadventures, Wall•E causes trouble and forces people to stand up and talk to each other – face-to-face. He saves the day in more ways than one.

In The Truman Show, Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) is the unwitting and unknowing star of a non-stop TV show that chronicles his entire life from birth to the end. Truman’s house, hometown, his friends, family, job, recreation—his whole life—is fabricated for the benefit of the TV show. Everyone he interacts with is an actor playing a role. They advance the plot, pitch products, even introduce new girlfriends to increase the show’s ratings.

One day Truman sees clues that his universe is not quite what he thought. He rebels against the show and tries to escape. Christof (Ed Harris) the director tries his best to keep Truman imprisoned in the artificial world, to disastrous results.

Unlike Truman, Eddie Pekurny (Matthew McConaughey) is a normal guy who agrees to become the star of a 24-hour reality TV show in the film EdTV. Cameramen follow him around town documenting his every move, recording every word. Ed enjoys the limelight and the popularity, but soon realizes that the omnipresent media is ruining his family and any chance of a normal relationship with his girlfriend Shari (Jenna Elfman).

Ed eventually finds an ally in his producer (Ellen Degeneres) and they plot a way out of the show and an end to the watchful eyes and ears of the media.

Today, with the media playing such an omnipresent role in our culture, it’s tough to escape, clear one’s head and find time to pray—in order to develop and strengthen our intimate relationship with God.

The upcoming season of Lent is a great time to start enjoying the silence.

Unplug, disconnect, log off the Internet. Spend this Lent in solitude, listening to God with certitude.

CF

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First published in the February 20, 2009 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2009 Christopher Fenoglio.

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A month ago on Black Friday, shoppers rose early to purchase special gifts for family and friends.

A week ago, procrastinators and other well-intentioned-husbands-who-can’t-make-up-our-own-minds rushed to find THE gift before it was too late.

A few days ago on Christmas Eve, children were nestled all snug in their beds while visions of Nintendo Wiis danced in their heads.

Today, all the gifts have been unwrapped; their boxes, bows and ribbons set on the curb for trash pickup. Some gifts have already been returned, refunded, broken and forgotten.

We all mean well, especially when buying gifts for our children. But do our gifts have any lasting value?

Pope Benedict XVI recently wrote that he fears our children are being raised in a consumeristic culture that offers “false models of happiness.”

ultimate-gift-poster.gifPerhaps we can all learn valuable lessons from the film The Ultimate Gift, released this fall on DVD by FoxFaith Films. The film is an adaptation of the book with the same title, written by Jim Stovall.
 
Jason Stevens (Drew Fuller) is a spoiled rich kid, listlessly blowing through life and his huge trust fund. Despite all his comforts, he lives a bored, troubled life.

When his grandfather Red Stevens (James Garner) passes away, Jason thinks he’ll inherit a big check. Instead, he learns that Red has created a series of gifts for him. If Jason can persevere through all the gifts, he will get the ultimate gift at the end.

The Gift of Work
Without ever working a day in his life, Jason is transported to the middle of Texas where he has to work ten hour days digging and setting fence posts. Despite his slow start, he eventually learns the value of starting the day with a purpose, working hard and sticking with a project.

The Gift of Money
His credit cards, bank and cell phone accounts are all closed, leaving Jason homeless and destitute. Now that he no longer lives in luxury, he learns what money can and cannot do.

The Gift of Problems
Jason’s grandfather further explains to him in a video message that “Our lives should be lived, not by avoiding challenges, but by welcoming them as opportunities to strengthen us so we’ll be victorious in the future.” Despite being faced with some serious problems, Jason learns how to persevere and survive.

The Gift of Friends
Abandoned by his “friends” who only liked his money and parties, Jason is told he must have a “true friend” by the end of the month. He befriends Emily (Abigail Breslin), a young girl who visits the park often with her mother Alexia (Ali Hillis). Emily wholeheartedly shares her lunch and sticks up for her new friend. Jason finally learns the value of true friendship, without any attached strings or financial payoffs.

The Gift of Family
Jason is instructed to bring his extended family together for Thanksgiving. Despite their pampered lives, large houses and expensive cars, his aunts and uncles only complain that they didn’t get more of Red’s fortune. Jason actually learns more about being a family through his interactions with Emily and Alexia. Despite their hardships, a strong love exists between mother and daughter.

The Gift of Learning
Flown to Ecuador to help villagers, Jason rebinds books and drives the mobile library around town. The villagers are hungry to learn ideas far beyond their borders. Despite the hard work and poor conditions, Jason learns that his grandfather’s small gift of a library has affected so many lives. “Learning is a gift,” says Red in another video, “even if pain is your teacher.”

The Gift of Dreams
Jason never developed his own dreams, since his every need was met by his family’s riches. After he hits rock bottom, however, he realizes his life has no purpose. He focuses on Emily’s dreams, which are connected to her medical condition. Jason learns that even though he may not yet have his own dreams, he can certainly help others realize theirs.

The Gift of a Day
If you had one more day to spend on this earth, how would you spend it? How would our children spend it? When faced with that question, Emily wanted “to be with people I love, who love each other and they love me.” It was as close to a perfect day as could be.

The Gift of Gratitude
Through all his hardships, Jason learns that each moment, each day is precious. He begins to appreciate what his grandfather and others have done to give him all these gifts.

The Gift of Love
In the end, Jason realizes that he has received the ultimate gift – his grandfather’s love. Red cared so much for Jason that he set up a process through which Jason could live and learn all these gifts, each of which is so much more valuable than money or the latest and greatest toy.
 
This week we celebrated Christmas, remembering the ultimate gift that God our Father gave us – his only son. The love in this gift, not fully realized until Calvary, is bright enough to inspire us to greatness, yet also strong enough to wipe clean our sins. Unlike last week’s toys, when we are broken, we can be repaired. We are forgiven and not forgotten.
 
May we all learn from our Christmas gifts that “life is how you live it, not how you spend it.”

CF
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First published in the December 28, 2007 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2007 Christopher Fenoglio

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What sweeter music can we bring
than a carol, for to sing
the birth of our heavenly King?
– Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

Emanuel - The Music of ChristmasThroughout the centuries, no single event has moved authors, poets and composers more to create beautiful music than the celebration of Christmas and the birth of Jesus Christ.

Filled with the majesty and wonder of God becoming man, these songs permeate our culture and can be heard on the radio, in shopping malls and through our CD players.

Yet these carols really “come alive” when we sing them at church, at parties or during Christmas caroling around the neighborhood. St. Augustine once wrote “to sing is to pray twice,” so singing Christmas carols is a great way to prayerfully prepare for Christmas day.

The following historical vignettes provide insights into the composers and lyricists who penned these famous and most popular Christmas carols.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
The roots of this carol date back to the 800s and a series of Latin hymns sung during Advent Vespers. These Great Antiphons (meaning psalm or anthem) were published in 1710 and rediscovered by English minister John Mason Neale. He wove together parts of the antiphons to create this song, first published in 1851. His first draft of the song began with “Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel,” but a later revision restored the tradition of these antiphons by starting the song with “O.”

Joy to the World
Music in church services throughout Great Britain during the 1700s usually took the form of singing the Old Testament psalms, until Isaac Watts came along. Dissatisfied with the quality of singing, he created new music with messages that reflected important passages of the New Testament. This classic song, which is often used as the closing hymn of a Christmas Mass, was Watt’s interpretation of verse 4 of Psalm 98, which says “Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth.” Watts considered what the reason would be for the earth to shout joyfully and rightfully concluded – the birth of our Lord.

Silent Night
The original German lyrics “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” were written by Father Josef Mohr in 1816. Tradition holds that two years later, faced with a rusty, broken organ (some say damaged by mice) on Christmas Eve, Father Mohr gave the lyrics to Austrian headmaster Franz Gruber and asked him to compose the melody on guitar. At first Gruber declined because the guitar was popularly used for drinking songs, but finally agreed and created a Christmas song loved throughout the world. “Silent Night” is said to be one of the songs both English and German soldiers sang together in the great Christmas truce of 1914 during World War I.

O Holy Night
Originally published in French with a title “Christian Midnight,” its lyrics were written in 1847 by Placide Clappeau, a French wine merchant. The tune was composed by Adolphe Charles Adam, a prolific French opera composer who was educated in his youth in music and piano. The carol was later translated into English by John Dwight, a Unitarian minister who published Dwight’s Journal of Music in 1852. His fondness for European music, especially compositions by Ludwig von Beethoven, was instrumental in the popularity of European classical music in America. It is thought that this was the first song broadcast over the radio.

We Three Kings
John H. Hopkins, Jr. wrote this hymn about the Magi for a Christmas pageant at New York City’s General Theological Seminary in 1857. Hopkins had graduated from the Episcopalian seminary and was the school’s first instructor of church music. The seminary, located in the wooded, undeveloped northern area of Manhattan, was founded in part through a land gift from Clement Clarke Moore. The son of New York’s Episcopal bishop, Moore’s income and fame were the result of a famous poem he wrote: “Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house…”

Angels We Have Heard on High
The French roots of this carol can be found in the 1700s in “Les Anges dans nos Campagnes,” which literally means “the angels in the countryside.” The French verses were coupled with a refrain taken from Luke 2:14 in the Latin version of the Bible: “Gloria, in excelsis Deo,” which means “Glory to God in the highest.” The carol was translated to English by Bishop James Chadwick and first published in his 1860 Holy Family Hymns. The traditional tune is attributed to Edward Shippen Barnes, an American organist who studied Yale University from 1910-11 and then briefly at Schola Cantorum in Paris.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in1864, the carol is best understood in the context of the Civil War. Sitting at his son’s bedside at their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Longfellow feared for his son Charley’s life. Only seventeen, Charley had jumped on a train and join the Union Army. He was wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church in Virginia and arrived home December 8. Overcome with grief and despair on Christmas Day, 1863, Longfellow poured his feelings into the song. The bells he heard reminded him that “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”

What Child is This?
The words to this carol are taken from a longer poem written by William Chatterton Dix in 1865. Born into a literary family, Dix’s father was a surgeon who also wrote a book about English poet Thomas Chatterton, after whom he named his son. William did not follow his father’s footsteps to medical school — instead he sold insurance and wrote poetry. The melody of this carol comes from the 16th century British melody “Greensleeves,” originally a ballad of a man pining for his lost love. The carol was published in 1871 in Christmas Carols, New and Old. Dix wrote many other hymns, most notably “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus” and “As With Gladness, Men of Old.”

Away in a Manger
Also known as “Luther’s Cradle Hymn,” a popular belief in the early 1900s held that this carol was composed by Martin Luther, whose theological writings inspired the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. One published version of the song in 1887 stated that Luther composed it for his children, though it does not appear in his works or in German church history. The carol was more likely written by German Lutherans in Pennsylvania, appearing in the Little Children’s Book in 1885. Yet only the first two verses were published, with no attribution to an author. The author of the third verse (“Be near me, Lord Jesus”) is also unknown.

Go, Tell it on the Mountain
While most of our beloved Christmas carols came from England and Europe, this one was penned in Tennessee. Born in Nashville and the son of a church choir director, John Wesley Work, Jr. often sang in his father’s choirs. In the late 1890s, Work received bachelor and masters degrees from Nashville’s Fisk University and was hired by the university to teach Greek and Latin.

In addition to his studies, he developed a fondness for Negro spirituals, a type of song sung by black workers on American plantations. Many of these spirituals were passed down orally through the generations, and were eventually written down and published. One of the last songs to be published was this one, for which Work created two new verses in 1907.

However, author Robert Morgan recounts in his book Then Sings My Soul, Book 2 that the Fisk Jubilee Singers had been singing one version of the song since 1879. Work made it a Christmas tradition to lead students around the campus before sunrise on Christmas Day to sing the joyous phrase “Go, tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.”

With so many wonderful songs to sing this season, it’s easy to agree with the composer of another favorite hymn: “How Can I Keep From Singing?” May these beloved Christmas carols bring joy and happiness to you and your families as we celebrate the birth of our Lord.

CF
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Originally published in the December 6, 2006 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© Christopher Fenoglio

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