Simple Gifts, the Christmas Truce, and Benjamin Bowmaneer

simple-gifts-christmas-truce-benjamin-bowmaneerThat good old Christmas depression has lifted, or at least there’s a break in the clouds for me, so I’m trying to get in the spirit by sharing some Christmas items.

Simple Gifts is the name of a Christmas special developed by PBS circa 1977. It features six animated vignettes all tied together around the theme of Christmas. Prized by those who know it, it seems all the more valuable for having largely disappeared. Great animation, fine art, and it deals with themes which are eternal, as well as events etched in the collective consciousness of generations. But let’s lead into it with bits & bobs about Benjamin Bowmaneer…

British folk artist Kate Rusby, in her 2016 release Life in a Paper Boat, begins with that very song:

It’s an old English ballad sometimes classified as “Roud #1514.”

Have you heard how the wars began,
Benjamin Bowmaneer?
Have you heard how the wars began?
Castors away!
Have you heard how the wars began
When England fought to a man?
And the proud tailor rode prancing away.

The song can be taken as an ironic commentary on the transformation from peacetime to wartime, when many a peaceable tradesman might suddenly find himself called to be a soldier. Kate Rusby’s version sounds surprisingly modern; but let’s see how that same ballad was used to introduce a remarkable vignette on the subject of the Christmas Truce of December 25th, 1914, as recounted by Captain Sir Edmund Hulse:

The way the music was edited to create a counterpoint between English and German Christmas carols is fantastic, and contributes much to the expressive power of the vignette. (Compare this scene from Casablanca depicting dueling anthems.)

Eliza Carthy does a simple piano-and-voice version of “Benjamin Bowmaneer”:

Haunting, but perhaps a bit gloomy for Christmas. More cheerful is the song whose name mayhaps inspired the title of the PBS special: “Simple Gifts,” here sung by Judy Collins (from her 1970 album Whales & Nighingales):

It’s a traditional Shaker song from 1848, later popularized by composer Aaron Copland in his 1944 orchestral suite Appalachian Spring, here performed by a local band known as The New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein (We wish them well!):

Of the animated shorts comprising Simple Gifts, the one perhaps best remembered and garnering the most praise is “No Room at the Inn.” Created by R.O. Blechman (who also produced the special), and faithfully inked by fellow animator Ed Smith, it remains for me a high watermark in hand-drawn animation, due to its simplicity and power:

I cannot say enough about this piece, which is such an eloquent, wordless retelling of the Nativity story, with totally excellent music by Arnold Black using early instruments. If the omnipresent A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) humorously bemoans the commercialization of the birth of Jesus, “No Room at the Inn” does so poignantly, with a richer set of observations about the human condition and the eternal themes surrounding the Nativity. We see King Herod troubled by the light which steals into his bed chamber and cannot be shut out:

herod-troubled-by-the-star-of-bethlehemHe arises in anger and dispatches his army to slay every male infant in Bethlehem, in the vain hope that doing so will preserve his own corrupt reign. Blechman portrays the commercial hostelers as two-faced, bending to whatever cause will line their pockets. When Bethlehem is abuzz with pilgrims, they put up signs welcoming pilgrims. When Herod’s army invades, they welcome the soldiers with equal gusto. To see a sign saying “Nativity Town” lying in a burning heap is a sad commentary on the fickleness of human affection for Avataric beings. Truly, “You are now leaving Bethlehem” (wonderful anachronism!).

nativity-town-you-are-now-leaving-bethlehemAs Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus flee into Egypt, they carry practically nothing with them and are confronted with a familiar phenomenon: The road they travel is solitary, but is lined on either side with hotels welcoming rich merchants.

mary-and-joseph-flight-into-egypt“No Room at the Inn” is drawn in a minimal style and contains no dialogue, yet it’s one of the most moving tellings of the Nativity tale I’ve ever seen. In one sense it’s the epitome of modern art, with the theme reduced to bare essentials (like Picasso’s successive drawings of a bull). Yet, the music by Arnold Black adds tremendous warmth, hopefulness, a sense of walking onward through adversity, and some sadness or wistfulness.

There’s also a connection with the world of Charlie Brown, because when hostelers rudely refuse Joseph, their voices are represented by discordant brass, not unlike the peevish teacher in Peanuts cartoons, played by a muted or “wah-wah” trombone.

“No Room at the Inn” has remained close to my heart since I first saw it 35 years ago because it captures essential spiritual truths in a simple but powerful way, and is an exquisite artistic creation which spans great distances between the ancient and modern worlds. In that sense, it’s a distant cousin of Steve Reich’s Tehillim, whose hallelujahs seem to come dancing and echoing to us from a corridor in time which is thousands of years wide:

Not Christmas music, but no less joyful than Handel’s Messiah for being sung in Hebrew. These different examples of ancient and modern art remind me of the immortal words of spiritual master Sri Chinmoy:

Never see anything with your mind’s eye. See everything with your heart’s eye. Then you will see that everything is beautiful. Art is meant for man’s understanding. It is meant for man’s blending with the inner life’s inner ecstasy.

–Sri Chinmoy

This is Michael Howard wishing you (in the words of Colleen Dewhurst): “a Christmas of simple gifts, richly bestowed and warmly received.” Special thanks to those who have helped me survive a difficult year through their kindness.

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Sidebar: The Christmas Truce of 1914

The Christmas Truce has come to be regarded as iconic, perhaps because it offers hope for peace and underscores the arbitrariness of the circumstances which turn brother against brother. The Truce has been explored in productions both documentary and dramatic because, in the middle of a war, peace broke out.

The Truce was re-eneacted in the 1969 film Oh! What a Lovely War, but the scene is not very effective because it quickly degenerates into drinking, smoking, and idle chitchat. More inspiring is this clip from the 1996 mini-series The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century:

In December 2014, the UK’s Sainsbury’s supermarket chain produced a 3:40 advert which also re-enacts the Christmas Truce:

Another version (courtesy Gogglebox) shows the reactions of selected British viewers:

An editorial in The Guardian by Ally Fogg decries the ad as “a dangerous and disrespectful masterpiece,” but it clearly touched the hearts of some viewers, and is considered a stroke of marketing genius, having gone viral on YouTube.

For more on the Christmas Truce, see this archived links page. There are a number of songs about the Truce, with some lyrics collected here. Part of Cormac MacConnell’s “A Silent Night, Christmas 1915” goes:

Oh silent night, no cannons roar,
A king is born of peace for ever more.
All’s calm, all’s bright,
All brothers hand in hand,
And that young soldier sings
And the sound of peace still rings,
Though the captains and the kings build no man’s land.

Here’s the full song sung by his brother Mickey MacConnell:

As for “Benjamin Bowmaneer,” according to the band Colcannon (which also does a version), the song appears “in the Penguin Book of English Folksongs — the old, and now rare, edition edited by Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.E. Lloyd.”

Trivia: Does Arnold Black’s music for “No Room at the Inn” remind you of anything? At times, it reminds me of “Up, Up and Away” — the part that goes “Would you like to ride, in my beautiful balloon?” And as folk tunes go, “Benjamin Bowmaneer” somewhat resembles “Spanish Lady.”

For Further Reading/Viewing

“The Gutsy Scribbling of R.O. Blechman”
http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/06/the-gutsy-scribbling-of-ro-blechman/259096/

R.O. Blechman CBS Christmas Message (1966)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUWMjUjit_U

“Jesus is Born–in a world of many faiths”
https://ethicsandspirituality.wordpress.com/2015/12/24/jesus-is-born-world-of-many-faiths/

Brother Jesus by Sri Chinmoy
http://www.srichinmoylibrary.com/BJ

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Jesus is Born–in a world of many faiths

An interfaith sermon by Revd Canon Barbara Moss

we-can-learnIntroduction

At a time when political candidates may seek to divide the faithful, I’m reminded of this wonderful sermon preached by Revd Canon Barbara Moss at St. Mary’s Church, Cambridge in December 2001. After many years, it eventually disappeared from the Internet; so in reposting it on Christmas Eve 2015, I feel I’m reviving a lost treasure. I sincerely hope that Canon Moss would agree.


Jesus is Born–in a world of many faiths

When I started thinking about this sermon, it seemed to me that what the title called for was not just one, but a whole course of sermons, and that I was not qualified to preach any of them. However, I was fortunate enough to attend a special celebration, almost exactly two years ago. It was organized by Westminster Interfaith, to mark the new millennium with readings about Jesus, not from Christian sources, but from writers of other faiths: from the Qur’an to religious leaders of our own day such as the Dalai Lama. It is not only Christians who have drawn inspiration from the life of Jesus.

The secretary of an inter-faith group received a telephone call from a woman from a local church. “We don’t get out much any more, we’re all in our eighties, but we’d love to have a Muslim speaker who can tell us all about Islam.” The secretary put her in touch with a speaker, but about a week before the date of the meeting she received another phone call. “We’re really looking forward to Mrs Khan coming, but there’s just one thing. We’re all Church of England, but none of us believes in the Virgin birth, and we understand that Muslims do. Will she be very offended?”

The Qu’ran does indeed tell of the message of the angel to Mary. Joseph does not seem to play a part in the story; Mary gives birth alone, and when the people accuse her of having “brought an amazing thing,” she points to the baby, who speaks in her defence.

They said, ‘How can we talk to one who is a child in the cradle?’ He said, ‘I am indeed a servant of God. He has given me revelation and made me a prophet. He has made be blessed wheresoever I be, and has enjoined on me prayer and charity as long as I live. He has made me kind to my mother, and not overbearing or miserable. So Peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life again.

The Qu’ran also honours Jesus as a worker of miracles, while making it clear that his wonders are the works of God:

Then will God say: ‘O Jesus the son of Mary! Recount my favour to you and to your mother. Behold! I strengthened you with the holy spirit, so that you did speak to the people in childhood and in maturity. Behold! I taught you the Book and Wisdom, the Law and the Gospel. And behold! You made out of clay, as it were, the figure of a bird, by My leave, and you breathed into it, and it became a bird by My leave, and you healed those born blind, and the lepers, by My leave. And behold! You brought forth the dead by My leave. And behold! I did restrain the Children of Israel from violence to you, when you showed them the clear signs, and the unbelievers among them said: “This is nothing but evident magic.”‘

I found that this passage helped me to come to terms with the miracles, and the key is one that it is not mentioned in the bible, though it comes from early Christian tradition. According to the story, Jesus as a little boy of 5 made sparrows out of clay and breathed into them, and they flew away. I had thought that this story showed the young Jesus as rather too much of an apprentice wonder-worker — a bit like Harry Potter. In the light of the Qu’ran, I see it, rather, as a parable of that life which was in Jesus, who came so that we might know what it is to enjoy life in all its abundance.

For all the great honour it ascribes to Jesus, the Qu’ran condemns two central teachings of Christianity: the crucifixion, and the divinity of Christ. Muslims, and Jews, have difficulty in understanding how Christians can claim to believe in one God while talking as if there are three: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. According to the Qu’ran, it is absurd that God should have a son, and an offense to suggest that God would allow his prophet to suffer the shameful death of crucifixion. The Qu’ran was given to Muhammad, on its own account, because the words of Moses and Jesus had been misunderstood.

Mahatma Gandhi was a Hindu, and for him the problem with Christianity was its claim of exclusivity. He could not believe that Jesus was the ‘only son of God,’ nor accept that ‘only those who believed in Jesus would have everlasting life.’ For him, Jesus was a great teacher, and, in his teaching of non-retaliation, ‘a beautiful example of the perfect man.’ Gandhi’s Christmas message has much to teach us about what it means to follow Christ:

As long as it remains a hunger still unsatisfied, as long as Christ is not yet born, we have to look forward to him. When real peace is established, we will not need demonstrations, but it will be echoed in our life, not only in individual life but in corporate life. Then shall we say Christ is born. Then we will not think of a particular day in the year as that of the birth of Christ, but as an ever-recurring event which can be enacted in every life… It consists in the living of life, never ceasing, ever progressing towards peace. When therefore, one wishes “Happy Christmas” without the meaning behind it, it becomes nothing more than an empty formula. And unless one wishes for peace for all life, one cannot wish for peace for oneself. It is a well-evident axiom like the Axioms of Euclid, that one cannot have peace unless there is an intense longing for peace all round. You may certainly experience peace in the midst of strife, but that only happens when to remove strife you destroy your whole life, you crucify yourself. And so, as the miraculous birth is an eternal event, so is the cross an eternal event in this stormy life. Therefore, we dare not think of birth without death on the cross. Living Christ means a living cross, without it life is living death.

So Gandhi accepts the crucifixion as an essential part of his understanding of Jesus. He also addresses that central tension of Christianity: God’s kingdom has already come, but it has not yet come. In the words of the Lord’s prayer: “Your kingdom come; For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and for ever.”

Many of the contributors to Celebrating Jesus came, like Gandhi, from the Indian subcontinent or from the Indian religious traditions. Some write of Jesus as a divine manifestation alongside Krishna and the Buddha. The Sikh statesman Dr Gopal Singh wrote an extended poem, “The Man Who Never Died,” which won the approval of the Pope as speaking of Christ in a way that Christians had failed to do in two thousand years. The Dalai Lama, who responded to Pope John Paul II’s invitation ‘to come together and pray and fast for peace’ at Assisi in 1986, sees parallels in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ and the Buddha. But for my third reading I have chosen an extract from a poem by Sri Chinmoy, founder and leader of a religious tradition related to Hinduism and based on meditation, in his book Brother Christ.

I see an empty church.
Where is the Christ?
Where has he gone?

I see an empty temple.
Where is Sri Krishna?
Where has he gone?

I see an empty heart.
Where is God?
Where has He gone?

I saw the face
Of the suffering Christ.
I cried and cried.

I felt the heart
Of the forgiving Christ.
I smiled and smiled.

I clasped the soul
Of the illumining Christ.
I danced and danced.

Sri Chinmoy illuminates the paradox of our age: the abandonment of formal religion, witnessed by empty churches and death-of-God theology, while at the same time there is an intense spiritual thirst. His response in this poem, however, is not to deny the revelation of God in Jesus, but to take inspiration through meditation on Jesus.

The CMS missionary Max Warren once said that whenever you encounter anyone, of any faith or none, you are standing on holy ground; God has been there before you. The readings we have heard this morning show that we can indeed learn from the traditions of the world’s faiths, not only about their own beliefs, but also about our own — sometimes because we find ourselves in agreement with them, sometimes because clarifying our disagreement helps us to understand how it is that God speaks to us. Like the pilgrim entering the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, we enter into dialogue humbly and with bowed heads.

I finish with the world peace prayer, originally from the Hindu Upanishads, then popularized by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and frequently used at interfaith gatherings.

Lead us from death to life, from falsehood to truth.
Lead us from despair to hope, from fear to trust.
Lead us from hate to love, from war to peace.
Let peace fill our hearts, our world, our universe.

Note:
The quotations from the Holy Qu’ran translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, from Mahatma Gandhi’s The Message of Jesus Christ, and from Sri Chinmoy’s Brother Christ, are taken from Celebrating Jesus, edited by Daniel Faivre et al., and published by Daniel Faivre SG, 2 Church Avenue, Southall, Middx., 1999.

— Revd Canon Barbara Moss

Source: https://web.archive.org/web/20080917012003/http://www.ely.anglican.org/parishes/camgsm/sermons/S2002l/bm1sermon.html

Correction: The book by Sri Chinmoy is actually titled Brother Jesus.


Sri Chinmoy, collage from videos by Niriha Datta

Sri Chinmoy, collage from videos by Niriha Datta

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See also: Christmas Music: The Rare and the Beautiful