Incarnation: A Suite of Songs for Christmas
Music: Thomas Hewitt Jones
Words: Paul Williamson
The Typology of Christmas (from the UK premiere programme note): Three hundred years after it burst into the world as a new faith the spiritual and intellectual exhilaration generated by Christianity was manifested with extreme force and in unusual ways among Syriac-speaking Christians living in a region that now lies in eastern Turkey and northern Syria. Their spiritual fervour is witnessed by the ascetics who went out into the desert, chaining themselves to rocks, wearing heavy weights around their necks or having themselves sealed up in caves in order to mortify the flesh and live out what they believed to be a truly Christian way of life. A notable example was set by St Simeon Stylites (c. 389–459). Simeon spent thirty years living at the top of a stone column (stylos in Greek) that was gradually made taller to separate him from the ever-increasing hordes of visitors who came to ask for his guidance, seek a holy relic or simply to sightsee. Surprising though it may seem, Simeon inspired so many impersonators that column-dwelling became recognised as a distinct mode of monastic life and special rules were drawn up to regulate the conduct of the stylites.
Less obviously spectacular but fired by a similar degree of enthusiasm and excited sense of Christian purpose is the theological vision of St Ephrem the Syrian (c. 306–73), who lived all but the last ten years of his life in the city of Nisibus (now Nuseybin) on the present-day border between Turkey and Syria. As Sebastian Brock explains, a key concept in Ephrem's thinking is that of the insuperable 'chasm' between the creator and creation – between the divine nature on the one hand and the subordinate quality of all created things on the other. The fact that the 'chasm' is impassable is indicative of the inability of limited human intellects to know or to describe God. To know a thing, says Ephrem, is to contain it within the mind. How can the finite human mind contain the uncontainable – the infinite and omniscient? The answer is that it can't, but that God has allowed aspects of himself to be revealed in nature, in Scripture, and most importantly (though still not fully) in the Incarnation, where Christ is made man. Accordingly, human knowledge of God is composed of a flowing multiplicity of partial views that never leads to completeness of understanding but nonetheless provides a dynamic ever-changing vision of that which cannot ever be finally defined or understood. The components of that vision are paradoxes, symbols and types. Its most natural modes of expression are not the definitions and arguments of discursive theological prose but the rhythms and images of poetry, notably poetry combined with music in the form of Syriac madrashe or hymns.
Ephrem's approach to Scripture is symbolic and typological, which means that the greater significance of Old Testament symbols, events and persons is deferred until they are related to their New Testament equivalents. This is a method of juxtapositions, where, for example, Eve's birth from Adam's side in Genesis prefigures the piercing of Christ's side by the Roman soldier during the crucifixion, recorded in John 19:34. From this single association Ephrem weaves what Sebastian Brock calls a 'vast and rich web of exegesis' that connects Adam's rib with Christ's wounded torso; the Roman soldier's lance with the flaming sword that bars the way to Eden after Adam and Eve have been expelled for eating the forbidden fruit; and Eve herself both with the sacraments administered within the Christian church and also with the Virgin Mary. Some of these correspondences can be seen in a brief passage from Kathleen McVey's translation of the eighth of Ephrem's Hymns on the Nativity:
Blessed is the Compassionate One Who saw, next to paradise,
the lance that barred the way
to the Tree of life. He came to take up
the body that would be struck so that by the opening in His side
He might break through the way into paradise.
To read the full note from the UK premiere click here.
Buried in dirt, the seed baptised in rain
Revokes the muddy darkness to release
Quick motion from the shades of formless ease
And stir the shoot that's shrouded in the grain.
Time changes now. The rhythm of the year
Breaks off. Now ancient chronicles achieve
Their purpose in accomplished unity.
In an instant the long night still and clear
Suspends its passing, staying to conceive
Its lovely tribute to eternity.
Text: Paul Williamson © 2012
Extract from 6. Revelling
Old Noah's been drinking,
He's florid and flushed.
Buon anno! he pledges,
As nodding he snores.
The children come laughing
With crayons and glue
To crown him with paper
And paint him a face.
Good health to our sovereign:
Cheers! Prosit! Zum wohl!
The Lord of Misrule is our master tonight!
Text: Paul Williamson © 2012
A little secret: despite being devoted to Christmas and entirely based on Biblical typology, the text of Incarnation never mentions God or refers to Jesus by name.