A New World Christmas

January 6, 2010 | 7 comments
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photo courtesy of flickr

photo courtesy of flickr

As I’ve mentioned before, Mormons don’t follow the traditional liturgical calendar, but that won’t stop me from using this January 6, the twelfth day of Christmas and the feast of Epiphany or Three Kings Day, as a happy occasion to put up the one last Christmas post that escaped December. (It’s also a great reason to enjoy my Christmas decorations—and avoid the chore of taking them down—for just one… more… night.)

Several days before Christmas I attended a concert by the St Louis Chamber Chorus at the Cathedral Basilica. I’ve attended this concert most years that I’ve lived in St Louis, and it’s always a spiritual highlight of my season. This year’s program was a counterpart to last year’s: the 2008 concert was titled “An Old World Christmas”; this year’s was “A New World Christmas.” The choir’s artistic director Philip Barnes designed a thoughtful program spanning the breadth of American—North and South—history, geography, religious variety and musical idiom.

The project interested me on a conceptual level, and as I listened to the music I wondered whether there were any unifying theme, any identifiable “new world” flavor imparted to the Nativity. There isn’t, really, at least none that I could discern: American composers represent too motley a group, and too entwined with the old world, to really coalesce around a unified hemispheric approach. But the program was nevertheless tied together by a kind of cultural hybridity, an ugly but useful graduate school term for the fruitful interchange between an old story and a new context. In a piece like Healey Willan’s “The Three Kings,” appropriate for this Epiphany, an American musical vehicle carries a lovely text by the English poet Laurence Housman, recounting the old Matthean story, and the result is musical gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The idea of a new world Christmas engaged me for other reasons, as well. The Book of Mormon is a new world artifact with strong old world ties, no matter one’s view of its provenance, and the notion of cultural hybridity is central to understanding it on any level. As it happens, the birth of Christ features significantly in the narrative, as a prelude to the text’s central event: the appearance and ministry of Christ among the people of ancient America. The Book of Mormon can be a difficult text, at first: it is long, narratively complex, and stylistically remote from most readers. So I thought I would offer up a bit of the book, its new world Christmas, for curious readers. I’ll excerpt two passages: the first taken from the prophecy of Samuel, a Book of Mormon prophet who foretold Christ’s birth a few years before the event, and the second recounting the miraculous events in the new world—that is, the ancient American setting of the Book of Mormon—on the night of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. First, from Samuel:

“Behold, I give unto you a sign; for five years more cometh, and behold, then cometh the Son of God to redeem all those who shall believe on his name. And behold, this will I give unto you for a sign at the time of his coming; for behold, there shall be great lights in heaven, insomuch that in the night before he cometh there shall be no darkness, insomuch that it shall appear unto man as if it was day. Therefore, there shall be one day and a night and a day, as if it were one day and there were no night; and this shall be unto you for a sign; … and it shall be the night before he is born.

“And behold, there shall a new star arise, such an one as ye never have beheld; and this also shall be a sign unto you. And behold, this is not all, there shall be many signs and wonders in heaven. … And it shall come to pass that whosoever shall believe on the Son of God, the same shall have everlasting life.” (Helaman 14:2-8)

Later, the narrative recounts a miraculous fulfillment of Samuel’s prophecy, including the voice of the Lord to the prophet Nephi on the eve of his birth, saying:

“Lift up your head and be of good cheer; for behold, the time is at hand, and on this night shall the sign be given, and on the morrow come I into the world, to show unto the world that I will fulfil all that which I have caused to be spoken by the mouth of my holy prophets.”

And it came to pass that the words which came unto Nephi were fulfilled, according as they had been spoken; for behold, at the going down of the sun there was no darkness; and the people began to be astonished because there was no darkness when the night came. … And it came to pass that there was no darkness in all that night, but it was as light as though it was mid-day. And it came to pass that the sun did rise in the morning again, according to its proper order, and they knew that it was the day that the Lord should be born, because of the sign which had been given. (3 Nephi 1: 13-19)

For Mormons, the imagery in this episode—the new star, the brilliant night, the rising of the sun in its proper order—is memorable and meaningful, related to the beloved Biblical account and sharing in the same deep symbolic language of cosmic light and life. And its night-as-day adds another witness to the gospels, another testament of Christ’s divine person and his saving role.

In many ways this new world Christmas is thematically more at home today, Kings Day, and with Matthew’s account of the kings’ progress and worship, than it is with Luke’s infancy narratives on Christmas Day. The important ideas are signs of Christ, prophecies of Christ, and the sure fulfillment of those prophecies: just as the wise men from the east studied the prophecy, saw the sign and sought the King, so the ancient American prophets and disciples studied, saw and sought.

And these passages highlight an important nuance in the Mormon notion of revelation. Some Christian traditions understand revelation to be incarnate, embodied in the person of Christ, God’s ultimate communication to mankind: we might pair this idea with Luke’s infancy account, with its emphasis on the sacred mystery of Christ’s humble birth as a defenseless infant. Mormons, with others, understand revelation to be discursive, something closer to scripture or prophecy, a specific teaching that, crucially, prepares for and points toward Christ. This idea pairs nicely with Matthew’s—and the Book of Mormon’s— emphasis on the fulfillment of Jewish scripture in the birth of Christ. It also illustrates the extent to which the importance of prophets in Mormon teaching is understood to serve, never to compete with, the centrality of Christ for our salvation.

Happy Epiphany, all, whether in the new world or in the old. This year may you study, seek and find with the Kings.

“Who knocks tonight so late?”
the weary porter said.
Three kings stood at the gate,
each with a crown on head.

The serving man bowed down,
the Inn was full, he knew.
Said he, “In all this town
is no fit place for you.”

A light in the manger lit;
there lay the Mother meek.
This place is fit.
Here is the rest we seek.

Come, come. They loosed their latchet strings,
so stood they all unshod
“Come in, come in, ye kings,
and kiss the feet of God.”

7 Responses to A New World Christmas

  1. Hunter on January 6, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Wonderful, thanks for this. We had our family Epiphany celebration last night and read this poem (hat tip: Kristine at BCC). After it was over, I asked myself whether the trouble of recounting the story of the magi was “worth it,” doctrinally speaking, to our family. I was struck that the story of the magi may not convey new or heavy doctrine, but rather, recounting this narrative — recalling the imagery of the episode — provides a stirring example of many different doctrinal aspects.

    So, reading your post today with its suggestion that the new world/Book of Mormon accounts of the Nativity are very much at home during Epiphany was gratifying. Thanks. I loved this.

  2. NJensen on January 6, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    Epiphany has always been special for me, especially this year, as today is the 20th anniversary of my baptism. It makes me reflect on the last verse of the poem by Christina Rosetti:

    What can I give Him, poor as I am?
    If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
    If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
    Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

  3. Raymond Takashi Swenson on January 6, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    The first appearance of the Christ Child in the Book of Mormon is in Nephi’s mountaintop vision, in which a heavenly messenger teaches Nephi about the “condescension of God” and the significance of the Tree of Life in Lehi’s dream as a symbol of God’s love, embodied in his Son.

    The birth of Christ to a mortal mother is recounted again in King Benjamin’s account to his people of the message brought by an angel, who paraphrases the famous passage in Isaiah that was set to music in Handel’s Messiah, “For unto us a child is born.”

    The prophecy of Samuel, and its fulfillment to Nephi, repeat this theme of the coming of the Son of God in the flesh. And of course, it all culminates in Christ’s coming in the flesh to the Nephites, when they touch his resurrected, wounded, but glorified body, confirming all of the prior prophecies.

    The Book of Mormon is, in effect, a 600-year-long Advent Calendar, looking forward to the coming in the flesh of the Son of God. And its closing passages are both a warning and an invitation to prepare for the Second Advent, which purpose became the mission of the restored Church of the incarnate God born in the land of Jerusalem.

  4. Rosalynde Welch on January 6, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    Thanks for the comments, all; Raymond, I enjoyed your contribution, thanks.

    Hunter, thanks as always for your kind comments. I’m always a step behind Kristine. :) A few weeks ago I was about to link to the Chilcott “Shepherd’s Carol” when I saw that she had beat me to it. And now she’s beat me to the Housman poem! Ah well, there’s nobody I’d rather be made redundant by than Kristine Haglund.

  5. Kristine on January 6, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    Aw, shucks.

    Here’s your chance to scoop me–I’m desperately seeking a decent performance of Behold a Star from Jacob Shining from Mendelssohn’s Christus so I can, belatedly, put up the twelfth day of Christmas.

    This is very nicely done, Rosalynde. I suspect the last paragraph was condensed for the newspaper’s word limits–I’d love it if you unpacked a bit.

  6. Keith on January 7, 2010 at 12:12 am

    Don’t worry about the day. It’s true it’s Epiphany, but Eastern Orthodox Christian are celebrating Christmas Eve/Christmas the 6th and 7th.

    Nice essay.

  7. Rosalynde Welch on January 7, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    Kristine, I got nothing. I’m sure you’ve already sampled the youtube offerings. (I am less punctilious—and considerably lower brow—than you, and I don’t mind linking to an inferior performance if it’s all I can find, as evidenced in this very post!).

    I wish I could blame something so professional as word limits for the hasty last paragraph! No, I had to pick up Mara from preschool and I was tired of working on the piece, so up it went. In the very last sentence of that paragraph, the one about an emphasis on prophets not competing with the centrality of Christ, I was offering a defense against the Smithmas charge—that we look to Joseph Smith or whomever for salvation instead of to Jesus.

    The rest of the paragraph I was trying to get at the Mormon idea of propositional or dialogic revelation, and how that’s different from, oh, let’s call it relational revelation, the idea that Christ himself (and our relationship to him) is the ultimate revelation—rather than any information about Christ. As lovely as I find the latter idea, I don’t think it’s really native to Mormon concepts of revelation. It struck me that the Book of Mormon Christmas narrative (like the Matthew kings story) illustrates propositional revelation, while the Luke infancy narrative illustrates the relational model. What do you think about all that?