Advent, Christainity, Christmas, Subversive Carols

Subversive Carols: Lo How a Rose Ere Blooming

This series will interpret our beloved Christmas and Advent carols not as sentimental songs, but as a challenge to the status quo. Many of these subversive themes are already found in the lyrics, yet are often not pointed out. Enjoy the 12 days of Subversive Carols!

“Lo How a Rose Ere Blooming” by Theodore Baker

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
Mary we behold it, the Virgin Mother kind.
To show God’s love aright, she bore to us a Savior,
When half spent was the night.

The shepherds heard the story proclaimed by angels bright,
How Christ, the Lord of glory was born on earth this night.
To Bethlehem they sped and in the manger they found Him,
As angel heralds said.

This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;
True man, yet very God, from sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.

Written in the late 16th century, “Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming” was originally a German hymn. Not entirely included in our culture of Christmas, I first heard this song in an Episcopal church I attended in 2009. Then, I heard it again sung by Sufjan Stevens, whose version is phenomenal. Anyhow, the verses in “Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming” are chalk-full of Hebrew Bible imagery and present a high view of Christ as God-babe. At the same time these lyrics overthrow systems of fascist political domination.

In current theological discourses, God is taught as being most sovereign, totally in control, and having knowledge of everything at once. It is common that for such a strong God that God’s followers should also reflect such strongness in their acts of worship.* Workout worship videos, wrestling and cage-fighting matches at all gathers, and pastors should have complete knowledge of their members’ activities. This of course is preposterous! Churches don’t run this way; instead, we project such beliefs onto our secular structures, such as the government (NSA, CIA), family (patriarchal), and violent state authorities (police/military). “Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming” deconstructs and resists such strong interpretations of a strong God and government.

Ripe with metaphor, in the first verse Jesus is “a rose…from a tender stem,” “sung by” humanity, and “a floweret bright.” These phrases do not demonstrate a sovereign divinity, but a gentle, compassionate loved one. Again in the second verse, the Rose represents Jesus. It is not God’s power shown through Jesus’ birth; instead, it is God’s tender love. And tacked on at the end of both of these verses is, “When half spent was the night.” Clearly, the middle of the night is the worst time to demonstrate any kind of authority. Power is demonstrated in broad daylight that everyone may heed its authority. Overthrowing any power for dominance and control, Jesus was born when no one expected it, in the middle of the night during winter.

The shepherds make an appearance in this song by traveling to see the sweet child. In the US context, shepherds are crusties, homeless persons, and day laborers. They are the forgotten, the nobodies. The ones no one wants to recognize, so we ignore them. It’s these people that the angels first proclaim the message of Jesus’ birth. Once again, this resists any kind of power play. Then finally, in the last verse, Jesus is called the “Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness” still “fills the air.” No remark of the cross that saves humanity, but salvation is found in the incarnation.

Our load is now lightened that we may breathe life where only death is found.

To disrupt power that goodness may abound.

Lo How an Rose Ere Blooming

* John Caputo makes the distinction between strong and weak theologians. Strong theologians teach of God’s sovereignty and the omni-s. On the other hand, weak theologians understand God not as sovereign, but as a Derridaian event. When an event takes place, it transforms everything. Everyone involved are no longer the same.

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Advent, Christainity, Christmas, Subversive Carols

Subversive Carols: Do You Hear What I Hear?

This series will interpret our beloved Christmas and Advent carols not as sentimental songs, but as a challenge to the status quo. Many of these subversive themes are already found in the lyrics, yet are often overlooked. Enjoy the 12 days of Subversive Carols!

Do you hear what I hear? by  Noël Regney and music by Gloria Shayne Baker

Said the night wind to the little lamb,
do you see what I see
Way up in the sky, little lamb,
do you see what I see
A star, a star, dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite
With a tail as big as a kite

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy,
do you hear what I hear
Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy,
do you hear what I hear
A song, a song, high above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea
With a voice as big as the sea

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king,
do you know what I know
In your palace warm, mighty king,
do you know what I know
A child, a child shivers in the cold
Let us bring him silver and gold
Let us bring him silver and gold

Said the king to the people everywhere,
listen to what I say
Pray for peace, people everywhere!
listen to what I say
The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light
He will bring us goodness and light

“Do You Hear What I Hear?” has consistently been my favorite Christmas carol. I especially love Sufjan Stevens’  version. On researching this carol, I was surprised to discover  this little nugget in the writer’s NYT obituary: “Written in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was intended to be a plea for peace.” Thus we can gather two things from this statement. It is a rather new song, unlike Silent Night (1818), and it has political implications. This Christmas song was a creative way to protest for peace.

Now let’s take a look at the lyrics. The movements in the song are what I find most captivating: the night wind, the little lamb, the shepherd boy, the king, and all the people. In our political discourse, the political elite and the media hold the power of knowledge on current and world events. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” reverses this discourse and begins with the earthy, something anyone can engage: the night wind. The night wind is the first one to know and share the secret of peace.

We then find the little lamb listening to the night wind’s message. Again no human interaction has taken place. The Earth and her creatures know of Divine peace and love before humanity is even touched by it. Our first human touch of the peace secret comes to the socially lowest person in the world. In the time of Jesus, shepherds were the marginalized. They were sent to be with the sheep because society rejected them. They were the weak ones, the ones without political and economic power. Understanding this theologically, the Divine comes to the least of these before God/She appears to the elite.

In the next verse, we take a leap in social status. The shepherd boy appears before the king, the authority in political/social life, and offers him peace. The king listens to these words and takes them to heart. And in the last verse, the king gives up his kingship and tells all of the people that there is someone who will bring peace to all. The carol ends with the king singing that the child of peace “will bring us goodness and light.”

In conclusion, this song flips our notions of the Divine relation to humankind since the Divine first speaks to non-humans. Our concepts of power too must be overturned and reevaluated, possibly for a radical cosmopolitanism, where the Earth will be treated equally as a person.

Listen deeply to non-humans, their vision of Divine peace is radiating.

Night Wind to the Little Lamb

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