Advent 9: Oxford Gospel

ogc-poster-xmas2017-a3_final-730x1024I am newly-returned from the festive shebang that was Christmas With The Oxford Gospel Choir, starring wife, >70 singers, and, crucially, two seven-year-old bellringers plucked from the audience to jingle away with such intensity that the evening became a Richard Curtis film (cheerily so, not Emma Thompson vs. adultery) and I became Christmassy mulled tears.

I should say TV’s Own Oxford Gospel Choir, since their Events Choir were recently finalists of Songs of Praise’s BBC Gospel Choir of the Year, and here’s a clip of their second performance! Solo by the incredible Lizzie Butler.

If you’re local to Oxford and keen to sing gospel music, I should stress that – despite the programme’s tone, it’s not a religious/evangelical choir (or I wouldn’t endorse it): the members are of all faiths and none. They perform at a wide range of events, from charity fundraisers and weddings to Oxford Pride and the Christmas Lights Festival. As a bonus, here’s a link to one of their star soloists, the staggeringly talented Helen Ploix (primarily, in our house, of ‘Is Helen going to sing How I Got Over? in this concert? If not, WHY NOT?’ fame, why does every concert not include this) – check out her version of Hallelujah, I Love Him So. 

The evening was fantastically festive. On the way home, wife and I discovered that the doomed tapas bar opposite our flat is now inexplicably a doomed Sri Lankan restaurant, and now we’re eating Pringles and recapping Strictly. Truly, the spirit of Christmas is nigh.

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Advent Calendar Day 5: Christina Rossetti

The fifth day of Advent belongs to poet Christina Rossetti, born on 5th December 1830. She has been much on my mind today, as admissions season continues. Back in 2004, when I was interviewing at Oriel, Christina Rossetti was one of two women nineteenth-century poets of whom I’d actually heard (the other was Emily Dickinson), and she crops up with candidates – especially women – today.

image_largeThis week, I have also been spending my evenings at Keble, whose chapel is home to ‘The Light of the World’, Holman Hunt’s 1853 painting, whose Christ has the face and head of Christina herself; her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) co-founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with Holman Hunt and Millais.

‘The Light of the World’ was one of relatively few paintings that I could identify before university, partly because one of our schoolteachers was sufficiently obsessed to give an annual assembly on the picture, and partly because the PRB were amply exhibited in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (I also knew some other paintings, e.g. Guernica and some Van Gogh, and – less usefully – such items of folk art as The Really Big Pigs at Compton Verney).

Keble Chapel is sublime. No other college chapel changes so much with the weather. In sunshine, the mosaics glitter like a Children’s Illustrated Bible, and during a thunderstorm, it turns into Byzantium.

Christina Rossetti’s best-known poetic contribution to Christmas is ‘In The Bleak Mid-Winter’ (1872) now a much-loved carol that I remember learning in primary school, with appropriately mordaunt sigh-singing on snow on snow, snow on snooow throughout December. It’s the carol that springs horribly to mind when I witness homelessness exposed to a ‘frosty wind’ and ‘earth stood hard as iron’.

Rossetti’s other Christmas poem, though, is ‘Christmas Eve’ (undated pre-1886). I love it and it’s reproduced below.

Christmas hath a darkness
Brighter than the blazing noon,
Christmas hath a chillness
Warmer than the heat of June,
Christmas hath a beauty
Lovelier than the world can show:
For Christmas bringeth Jesus,
Brought for us so low.

Earth, strike up your music,
Birds that sing and bells that ring;
Heaven hath answering music
For all Angels soon to sing:
Earth, put on your whitest
Bridal robe of spotless snow:
For Christmas bringeth Jesus,
Brought for us so low.

I love this poem for holding in tension the tragic framing of the Christmas story, seen here as chillness, coldness and poverty  – with the joy of the season of Christ’s birth. I struggle with the joyless snobbery of some Christian commentaries on Advent. No, it’s not Christmas yet, yes Advent is penitential, and if the ‘commercialisation’ of Christmas is ‘depressing’, it’s perhaps rather less depressing than e.g. the ongoing sexual abuse scandals, the existence of Trump, and the rollout of Universal Credit. The world and the winter are cold and dark, and I am both doggedly Anglican and fond of tinsel. There are, it seems to me, so many more Christian things to do in December than grumble about secularised Advent: donate to your foodbank, bother your MP, chat to your neighbour, support a charity that helps those most vulnerable to the inequalities Christmas highlights. Light some lights and eat some chocolate. If you share the chocolate that is basically A Moral Good too.

Advent Day 4: St Barbara

It is 10.30 p.m. on Monday 4th December, and I have just got home from an Admissions meeting with colleagues of many colleges. I am fuelled by an unexpectedly not-horrible elderflower Schloer, a quantity of flapjack, ravioli, and caffeine. Given my schedule for tomorrow, some or all of this may become a problem. I’m not sure how admissions chimes with Advent as a season of preparation, but both processes are intimately connected with justice, thanksgiving, community, and chocolate.

the_holy_family_with_st_barbara_and_young_saint_john_uffizi_1565

Paolo Verenese, ‘The Holy Family with Saint Barbara and young Saint John’, 1565.

I thought I’d tell you (in some haste) about St Barbara. Today is her feast day. As saints go, she scores highly: A Woman, if not Definitely Real. She is the patron saint of those who work with explosives, and invoked by anyone with a dangerous job; her feast day is marked by the armed forces. She’s also invoked in one of my favourite plays, The House of Bernarda Alba, by Lorca, with the words ‘Blessed Santa Barbara, your story is written in the sky, with paper and holy water’. Her father, Dioscorus, was a wealthy Roman governor who enclosed her in a tower; left alone in contemplation, she became a Christian through independent thought and study. She refused her father’s suitors, and wangled some freedom which she used to meet other Christians. When he built her a bath-house, she used it as a space to perform healings and miracles. When he tried to abuse her, she ran away; ultimately, after a lot of torture alongside another Christian woman, Juliana, Barbara was beheaded by her own father. Seconds later, lightning struck him dead. Showed him. Barbara has become important to Yoruba practitioners of African religion in the Caribbean, where she represents fire, determination, and commitment. She’s also a popular saint among Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian Christians, who – today – will celebrate Eid-il-Burbara with anise, barley, pomegranates, walnuts, and almonds.

I am glad not to have a job requiring the special protection of St Barbara. I would, however, love to celebrate Eid-il-Burbara in Lebanon. Costumed children visit neighbours’ houses singing songs about how Barbara defied her father, and receive sweets in return. Evidently, our lightning-slinging heroine inspires a kind of festive Hallowe’en remix! It’s very Blink-182, only with more barley.* Hurrah for St Barbara.

 

*Watch the full video for Point Horror realness, sub-par starlets, and a bald cat (??). MERRY ADVENT. I still haven’t made any mincemeat.

Advent Calendar 2017: Day One!

wreath

I last fashioned a blog advent calendar approximately 300 years ago, with a modicum of planning and pretensions to festive continuity. This year, I’m emerging from eight weeks of twenty-four tutorials, twelve lectures, five seminars, and one short-trade-book-coming-out-in-January (of which more soon!), to a weekend’s pause before we enter the frenetically flapjack-fuelled Most Wonderful Time Of The Year, aka Admissions. If anyone finds this because they’re facing university interviews over the next fortnight – especially anyone hastening to the deer park + river + gargoyles palooza – hello, best of luck, we’re all rooting for you and I do remember what it was like. I genuinely love admissions, what with my Dream Team Co-Interviewer (whose daily etymologies are the purest thing on Twitter), the v. many bright young candidates, and the flapjacks.

Given the above, what could be better than committing to a daily bout of Advent blogpost goodness? Treat that question as rhetorical. I miss blogging, I like December, and nestled in the ensuing chaos of YouTubed Muppets and disturbing Scandiwegian frost-folk will be a genuine attempt to mark and benefit from Advent, the loveliest season of the year (even if the Thames Valley climate soon drives me to a reversed balaclava). I might borrow from other Advent preparation blogs, I will certainly bang on about my preferred charitable causes (poverty, homelessness, gender and sexual equality), and in extremis I might even be driven to cook (or, as my wife suggests, “write about how [I] hated all the wrapping paper [she] bought, then admitted it wasn’t so bad”).

When trying to find a theme for this post, I noted that it is the patronal feast of St Eligius, the patron saint of goldsmiths and jewellers – which makes it a good day to buy something sparkly. Or even FIVE GOLD RINGS (…segue…). The best and most bizarre YouTube video available shows Montserrat Caballe and a dozen peaky, toothy choirboys weeshing us a Merry Chreestmas from Beaulieu Palace House for the edification of one old man and some shoulderpads. For what initially seems like a more orthodox alternative, let Wells Cathedral coax you into the festive season.

Stick around? Happy Advent!