In This Issue: Yale ISM Review, December 2016

christmas-issue-cover-thumbnailNovember 1 marked the fall edition of the Yale ISM Review, Vol. 3, No. 1. Rita Ferrone describes the scope of the journal in the opening editorial. Below is a summary of the contents.

Markus Rathey: Music and Divine Encounter in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

The article begins recounting the history of the over two-hour long Christmas Oratorio, which Johan Sebastian Bach had to split in to six separate parts to fit within the liturgies of the Leipzig churches in which it was meant to be performed. The performances spanned the Lukan Christmas story and the story of the Wise Men from Mt. 2, and spanned from Christmas day until Epiphany.
It then continues by stating that the piece was not only be a celebration of the birth of Christ, but a celebration of music and of music as a source of encounter with the divine, as is evidenced by the dialogue between the instruments in the sinfonia set during the angelic encounter of the shepherds. The text following this encounter stands along with the music to show that the encounter between humanity and the divine is played out in sound.

The angel’s Gloria is divided into choirs, using the pattern from the sinfonia, which is followed by a broader response, demonstrating the human response to the angel’s news. This is then followed by a setting of a congregational hymn, demonstrating the response of the congregation in this dialogue.

The other parts of the oratorio have similar musical imagery with a doxological section in the music, followed by a response in the chorus.  The oratorio, like that of Bach’s contemporaries, was not meant to set a sentimental mood, but rather to reflect an encounter with God, followed by a human response, echoing the angelic music, so that heaven and earth might be in harmony.

Felicity Harley-McGowan and Andrew McGowan: The Magi and the Manger: Imaging Christmas in Ancient Art and Ritual

The article begins by stating that the nativity imagery, as evidenced by a painting by Venetian Jacopo Tintoretto from the late 1550s, is not rooted in the earliest times of Christianity. Next, the authors trace the history of Christmas traditions from the infancy narratives to the liturgical celebration of Christmas appearing clearly in the fourth century.

The earliest surviving Christian art dates to around the 200s, the authors state. However, during the third century, a blossoming of Christian art appeared so that the tombs, churches and even housewares of the Christians began to be richly decorated with images from the Scriptures. The third-century evidence of the infancy story, often found in funerary settings, centers on the Matthean account of the magi more than the Lukan infancy story, and centered on the motifs of a star, a procession of the (already three) magi, and Mary, holding the child Jesus on her lap. The models for the gift exchange aimed at drawing the onlooker into the exchange by using contemporary court ritual to show the giving of the gifts. The thee Magi began to be associated “almost as kings” in the east, according to Tertullian by this time as well. They were given the traditional names and depicted leading processions of martyrs (as shown in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, in Ravenna) by the sixth century. By this time, the imperial imagery had come to take prominence, with an enthroned majestic Mary and Christ receiving the onlooker and the other subjects in the depiction as she presents the child in a courtly fashion. The fourth century led to a shift showing the Christ Child as focus in the crib from the Lukan story alone and without the manger scene commonly associated with the story. This gives attention exclusively to Jesus. The Ravenna Mosaic, from the sixth century, represents these two traditions being combined.

At the advent of Christmas in the fourth century, there were two celebrations, originally on December 25 in the West and January 6 in the East. Tertullian speculated the death of Jesus happened on March 25, which would become the date of the Annunciation later. This link came from the belief that his death was on the same date as his conception, which would move the date of his birth to December 25. The birth of Christ was linked to the feasts of martyrs “the other Christs” early on, and it is from this context, in the Philocalian Calendar of 354 that the first explicit mention of Christmas is found.

Although different places and times have favored one account over the other, the harmonization of the two led to the liturgical usage of the two dates used today with the Western date for the Nativity and the Eastern as the Epiphany, used to commemorate the Magi and the manifestations of Jesus’ divinity. This development allowed the development in the iconography, focusing on the birth of the Son of God to be the focus. From this tradition, Tintoretto painted his work.

Arthur P. Urbano: Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

Photos of mosaic mentioned in above article.

Wendy Farley: Born in Us Today: The Gospel of Incarnation

From the editorial, “In this Issue”:
Wendy Farley’s lyrical reflection on the meaning of the Incarnation weaves together current events, scripture, and hymns to make a powerful statement about what is at stake in our observance of Christmas today.

Nicholas E. Denysenko: A Meeting of Domestic and Liturgical Rites: Joy and Light in Orthodox Christmas

The article begins summarizing the traditional fasts associated with Christmas. Next, it touches the highlights of the rich liturgy of this season, beginning with the introduction of the history of the salvation of God’s people and the genealogy of Christ from Matthew on the two Sundays before Christmas. Next it summarizes the offices of Christmas Eve and Day.

From this context, it focuses on the pastoral challenges faces by the Orthodox Churches in the West, especially in terms of fasting and hosting/attending events with family and friends vis. the fasts and many liturgies surrounding the feast. This difficult liturgical reality is juxtaposed with the rich tradition of domestic traditions surrounding Christmas in many Orthodox homes.

From the theology of Christ as the gift of God to the world, and its response, humans gifting themselves to God in thanksgiving, the article draws parallels between the self-gifting of God in Christ and the gifting of ourselves in worship at Christmas.

From here, the author describes para-liturgical domestic rituals which have evolved and which serve to carry the message of Christmas, to those for whom it is a primarily domestic celebration. Among these is the holy supper a family feast originating in the winter solstice, which was aimed at protection from evil. This feast is traditionally prepared in accord with fasting norms, but contains an abundance of foods, and is marked by caroling from the time of the feast until Christmas. One of the most popular, “The Pre-Eternal God” is marked by having the shape of a traditional folk song. Another, “At the River Jordan” calls on all of creation to join in wonder of Jesus, the one whom angels adore, and is marked by both Eucharistic and Paschal allusion.

Rather than viewing domestic ritual as in competition with liturgical ritual surrounding Christmas, the author states that pastors should view it as a way in which the people have taken the liturgical tradition’s richness and filled their lives with it.

Susan K. Roll: Christmas in Fear, or Looking over One’s Shoulder at the Crèche

The article begins with the present difficulties of the world: terrorism, war, and the crisis of refugees they have caused and the ways it can hamper the celebration of Christians. Yet, the article begins, there have been times, such as in WWI, when Christmas offered a reprieve from the worst of times for those who celebrated it. This peaceful Christmas time was not the setting for the earliest known Christmas sermon, preached by Bishop Optatus of Milevis in the mid third century amid persecution.

Rather than focusing on the infancy story of Luke or the Magi in Matthew, the sermon focuses on the massacre of the Holy Innocents in Matthew 2. The context of this sermon was the persecutions under Emperor Julian in 361-3. By favoring the Donatists, Julian sought to sow discord in the Christian communities to take the disharmony to two fronts. Faced with this, Optatus preached a message of support to his church. The key theme of the sermon is that those who are persecuted will enter in to glory and those who suffer will be saved.

The author then connects those circumstances with those faced by the church today. We Christians, are faced with dire realities of this life but are assured of the hope that we have and cannot abandon: “promises of peace on earth in spite of organized terror, and of good will to all persons even as the social and economic gaps grow wider.”

Bruce Gordon: The Grinch that Didn’t Steal Christmas: A Reformation Story

“It is easy,” the article begins, “to believe that the John Calvin of legend sought to excise anything men and women might associate with joy and celebration.” However, this simply is not the case when it comes to the celebration of Christmas. Calvin sought to keep Christmas as a central feast in the life of Christians, but also sought to remove its obligatory status and the frivolous celebrations often connected with it.

This “balancing act,” the author states, was not maintained by his descendants. Rather, the English Puritans sought to do away with the twelve-day festival that was Christmas in the sixteenth century. The English sought to make it a fast day, as typified in the 1643 act of Parliament which decreed it to be a day of “solemn humiliation because it may call to remembrance our sins.” The English feast was restored, to great acclaim, in 1660. In Scotland, though, it remained abolished as a holiday from 1650 until 1958! The American Calvinist Pilgrims filled the day with work to ensure it was not a day of merrymaking.

Calvin was not alone in his retention of Christmas. The article states that Zwingli retained this feast, along with many other “scriptural” feasts, although Christmas was transferred to the nearest Sunday. For Calvin, Christmas and Easter spoke to the freedom found in union with God and for this reason, was a time of great joy. The “moderate course” he aimed at was to be a celebraton of the day that was both obedient to the Word of God and a celebration of the freedom found in conformity with it.  Ultimately, though, it was an adiaphora, and, because of Christian freedom, it was viewed as something which could be approved of if one chose to celebrate.

The association of Calvinists with not celebrating Christmas comes not from Calvin, then, but, as the article demonstrates, English Puritans and their transatlantic followers.

Oana Sanziana Marian: The Christmas Hearth

A deeply personal reflection on community creating a “hearth,” a sacred space in which Christmas can be celebrated despite separation from family and when one is removed from one’s setting.

R. Guy Erwin: Can We Still See Calvary from Bethlehem?

From the editorial, “In this Issue”:

In “One Final Note” Guy Irwin invites us to consider the relationship of Christmas to the Crucifixion—a connection too often overlooked or forgotten. He writes: “From the grotto to the hill, from the wood of the manger to the wood of the cross, from swaddling cloths to a seamless garment, from Bethlehem to Jerusalem: Jesus and Mary move through Jesus’s life with the inexorability and gravity of a liturgical procession. And we move with them, from Christmas to Easter, every year.”


  1. Thanks, Bill. It was a lot of fun to put together. I found the articles not only informative but also inspiring (even as I was editing this!), for example Wendy Farley’s essay on the spirituality of Christmas.

    A special hat tip to Nicholas Denysenko, who posts here at Pray Tell, for enriching the issue with a discussion of the relationship between liturgical hymns and Christmas carols in the Orthodox tradition.

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