Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Holy Family is Not Cheese

By a strange quirk of the English language, the word "child" has few rhymes, and one of them is "mild."

That's what Father A. said in his sermon last Sunday. We won't bother printing the whole thing -- it wasn't that interesting -- but we do want to share this one thought:
And so our poetry and our Christmas carols are full of "mildness." The Virgin is mild, the baby is mild; mild he lays his glory by, mild this and mild that. But do you know what mild means? Inoffensive, placid, even boring. A cheese is mild when it has no flavor.
But the characters we sing about are nothing like this. Mary is bold, when she magnifies the Lord; Joseph is brave, when he defies convention and says Yes to the angel. Jesus is a hero when he goes into combat against sin and death, a savior when on the third day he emerges victorious. They are not mild; they are wild. That is the rhyme, and I wish our carols all used it. They are wild with courage, and obedience not to the letter of the Law but to the spirit of love and faith.

Five minutes later, we sang one of those "mild" hymns. Since then, we've sung a dozen or so more, and so have most Egg readers. But each time, over the past week, we've substituted "wild," and do you know what? It changes the song. One world -- one consonant -- reshapes the story, in a way that we can't help thinking is a bit more faithful to the evidence.

Try it tomorrow, if you get the chance.


PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

I hadn't thought about how the necessity of rhyming changes the potential meaning of a poem/song. Yes, wild goes better with the radical nature of Christ's message.

I have thought about how so many of our songs have been translated from German and other languages and so the syntax is pretty screwed up. "Our songs" means many of those in our Lutheran tradition. Some of the other American faith traditions have more songs that are still in the original language, English, and they are much more straight forward in their meaning.

Father Anonymous said...

The most syntactically tortured of all Lutheran hymns in translation, sadly, may be A Mighty Fortress. A colleague recalls visiting a church once which proudly displayed its home-made banner, with the legend "On earth he has no equal."

He shakes his head and says, "I didn't have the heart to tell them that it refers to the Devil."

On the other hand, I'm not sure we carry the burden by ourselves. A lot of the best Anglican hymnody is also translated, especially by JM Neale and his cohorts, and it gets a little tricky sometimes. (Honestly, as a boy reading the attributions at the bottom of the page, I simply thought that ALL hymns were either by Neale or Catherine Winkworth.)

And of course, my own favorite "owie" is from a hymn written in English -- "Once to Every Man and Nation," which includes the priceless exhortation to proceed "by the light of burning martyrs." Sometimes, it isn't the syntax, it's the semnatics.

Diane said...

I like your suggestion and especially the thought of a "wild virgin"

LiturgyGeek said...

"Wild he lays his glory by ...." Loved it, and shared this idea with the congregation today. They also thought it was pretty cool.

Father Anonymous said...

I sang it that way myself at our service tonight, and actually got so carried away pondering it that I was momentarily elsewhere.

Maureen Lash said...

Wild, piled, filed, riled, whiled, domiciled, aisled, reconciled...

Father Anonymous said...

Not to mention undefiled, which I suspect has been bowdlerized in modern hymnals.