The Art and the Hours – The Poverty of Christmas Part I

by Br. Gilbert Heater, OSB

Advent draws to a close and together with expectant Israel we at last come to kneel before the manger and behold Immanuel: Son of Mary and Son of God. The promised Messiah has come in helpless humility, forbearing none of the poverty of human nature. This infant, in forsaking the communion of the Trinity, would be welcomed with the funereal balm of myrrh and would be faithful to his humanity until the end, drinking its dregs down to the last drop when in his Passion he would again experience the absence of the Father. The nativity is a silent calm of poverty and vulnerability, of complete and unconditioned self-gift. It is peaceful and tender because the humility of Christ is borne in the humble fiat of Mary and welcomed into the arms of gentle Joseph.

Smallness and weakness lie at the heart of Christmas and the music that resonates with me on this great solemnity is Nikolay Kedrov’s setting of the Lord’s Prayer, the Otche Nash. Kedrov was a well-known composer of liturgical music in the Russian Orthodox tradition, but this piece was written in exile after he fled from St. Petersburg to Paris to escape the horrors of the 1922 October Revolution. I particularly love this performance by the King’s Singers with its musical clarity and depth of emotion. It was recorded in isolation during the pandemic yet comes together in such a graceful unity that to my ears, it sounds like a single voice. I don’t understand church Slavonic, but that hinders not the beauty nor the power of these words of Christ. For beauty itself flows from, and is witness to, the transcendence of our Creator. This is music that brings us closer to the kingdom of God; it is a small moment in which Christ draws us unto himself and awakens in our hearts the song of love so that we can truly exclaim: may it be on earth as it is in heaven.

But Christ’s kingdom is one of paradox and patience, of littleness and love. It is a kingdom born in the depths of human poverty while the kings of the earth concerned themselves with census and with Caesar. Kedrov’s Otche Nashreminds us that there is beauty in littleness and insignificance. Listen to how little the voices move. One voice might cling to a single note for an entire phrase shifting, when it does, only to the nearest stepwise pitch. And yet these little differences, seemingly inconsequential, are far greater and more glorious than the sum of their parts.

And such is the mystery and beauty of the Church. Christ’s acceptance of human poverty in the Incarnation is beyond our comprehension, but we find, perhaps, an even greater mystery in the fact that he chooses us to continue his work of salvation. Our small and trivial voices, so faint and at risk of disappearing entirely in the seething clamour around us are nonetheless raised to the choir of heaven. We may feel like we are accomplishing nothing, stuck singing the same note for days or months or years. Our part may seem small, frustrating, or even embarrassing. And yet, when harmonized through the gracious Spirit of God, even our smallest movement can be a moment of profound and perfect beauty. Even when we seem to be contributing nothing but dissonance, the Father is able to resolve it into beauty that redounds to his greater glory.

So, this Christmas, welcome the poor and helpless Jesus. Love him and receive his love for you. It is in him that we find our voice and discover our role in bringing about the wonderous beauty of his kingdom. It is here that the little moments of our life, the dryness and desolation along with the consolation and joy, are all transformed into his own glorious life and carried along in the sanctification and salvation of all the earth.