Saturday, December 31, 2016

What Does Auld Lang Syne Mean?

Most Americans know at least the opening line of Robert Burn's poem "Auld Lang Syne," set to a Scottish folk tune which is at once melancholy and joyous. It doesn't take a linguist to realize that "auld" is simply "old" in Burns' Scottish dialect. But beyond the initial question - "Should auld acquaintance be forgot / and never brought to mind?" - most Americans' knowledge of the lyrics gets rather fuzzy, to say nothing of additional Scottish oddities. 

Perhaps most puzzling are the title words themselves: auld lang syne?  I'm no expert, but I'm told that "lang" means "long" - no big surprise there - and "syne" means "since."  As sometimes occurs in Latin or certain English texts, the noun involved is omitted, but can be inferred: old [things] long since [gone].  Or, more poetically, we might translate it as something like "times long gone."

Below is the full text, with glosses on some of the other words likely to befuddle modern singers.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?


For auld lang syne, my jo [dear],
for auld lang syne,
we'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And surely ye'll be [buy] your pint-stoup [cup]!
and surely I'll be [buy] mine!
And we'll tak' a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.


We twa [two] hae [have] run about the braes * [slopes],
and pou'd [picked] the gowans [daisies] fine;
But we've wander'd mony [many] a weary fit [foot],
sin' [since] auld lang syne.


We twa [two] hae [have] paidl'd [paddled] in the burn [stream],
frae [from] morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid [broad] hae [have] roar'd
sin' [since] auld lang syne.


And there's a hand, my trusty fiere [friend]!
and gie's [give me] a hand o' thine!
And we'll tak' a right gude-willie [goodwill] waught [draught],
for auld lang syne.


* You may know this term from the opening line of The Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Godhead See

My favorite lines from any hymn come from "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing": Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see / Hail the incarnate Deity.

The King's College Chapel choir sings an excellent rendition of the hymn below (as does the St. Paul's Choir), but I think the hymn is best done with more gusto and strong instrumentation.  This is not simply a sweet song about a little baby; it is a triumphal anthem celebrating our encounter with the King of Kings.

St. John Chrysostom echoes - or, rather, anticipates - the lyrics written by Charles Wesley.  In his Christmas sermon, he nearly sings, "All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised."

St. John draws our attention to the wonder that, with the Incarnation, a small corner of creation holds the creator Himself: "Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of Justice....  The Ancient of Days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infant's bands." 

For us whose nature He took on, this is nothing short of astonishing.  "The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us He may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that men cannot see."

If being created in the divine image did not already convey our inestimable dignity, the birth of Jesus now implies an even greater dignity.  "For it was to Him no lowering to put on what He Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator."

In the same oratorical style seen in his Easter sermon, St. John rises to a crescendo: "Come, then, let us observe the Feast....  For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels. "

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Comics: A Great American Institution

I love comics. My newspaper, the Financial Times, is in other respects an admirable publication but, sadly, has no comics. From time to time my parents are kind enough to send me some they've saved.

I don't merely think comics are enjoyable - though they are. Rather, I think they're a great American institution, a cornerstone of the republic, even.

First, there is the shared experience. I associate reading the comics with eating breakfast, often with my father. The comics section is passed around, favorite strips are discussed. But even apart from the physical aspect, even if comics are read electronically, people can discuss their favorite characters and watch their adventures over the years.  And comics frequently comment on our shared experiences, from grocery shopping and office life, to dating and politics.

Second, there is the intellectual exercise. Comics may seem simple, but humor is notoriously difficult to explain. It is usually based on an understanding of the way things work, an understanding shared by the joke teller and the audience, and then some deviation from that usual pattern in some quirky way.

Children, having only recently discovered the order of things, often most enjoy deviations from that order. A man absentmindedly reading his newspaper goes to pick up his coffee cup and, without looking, picks up the salt shaker and pours salt into his mouth. Hilarious.

We don't generally deconstruct every comic we read, but I'm convinced that reading the comics strengths our eye for patterns, particularly within social dynamics.

Third, comics provide perspective. Even in trying times - and when are the times not trying? - it is useful to remember that we can still laugh, that things aren't so bad that we can't carry on. Comics help remind us that the cosmos is ultimately comedic, not tragic. If you haven't read the Bible lately, forgive me for dropping a spoiler: the story ends with a wedding, not a funeral. Comics are a small foreshadowing of that joy.

The strip above is the Pearls before Swine, by Stephan Pastis, from 28 November.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

A Poem for Advent from G. K. Chesterton

A Child of the Snows

There is heard a hymn when the panes are dim,
And never before or again,
When the nights are strong with a darkness long,
And the dark is alive with rain.

Never we know but in sleet and in snow,
The place where the great fires are,
That the midst of the earth is a raging mirth
And the heart of the earth a star.

And at night we win to the ancient inn
Where the child in the frost is furled,
We follow the feet where all souls meet
At the inn at the end of the world.

The gods lie dead where the leaves lie red,
For the flame of the sun is flown,
The gods lie cold where the leaves lie gold,
And a Child comes forth alone.

Found on the website of the American Chesterton Society.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Christian Hope & the Upcoming Election

If there is one word that could characterize the prevailing mood among observant Christians in America in the weeks leading up to the election on Nov. 8, that word would be frantic. Some pundits scrutinize all the most recent polls, discerning the voice of God in the voice of the people. Others analyze the utterances of the candidates and their surrogates, seeking signs of what is to come. Still others preach their jeremiads, lamenting the sinful ways of all who disagree with them. No matter whom they support, or where they stand on particular issues, they are in continuous emotional turmoil, either worrying that Hillary Clinton will bring about the imminent demise of our fair "city upon a hill," or looking forward to the day when Donald Trump will inaugurate a new reign of peace and justice in America. Their emotions swing back and forth from the most exalted rejoicing to the deepest gloom.

But, why are Christians so frantic? Why do they seem to have so little inner peace?

Is it perhaps because they have not placed their hope in Jesus Christ? As Matthew Schmitz of First Things helpfully reminds us:

Despairing of anything other than salvation is not per se a sin. If anything, the fact that people so commonly label despair over a candidate or cause as sinful indicates that they have a weirdly spiritualized understanding of politics.

As today (in the traditional liturgical calendar) is the Feast of Christ the King, it is an opportune time to remind ourselves of what the Psalmist said: "Do not put your trust in princes, in men who have no power to save." Instead, we must accept St. Paul's teaching:

Give thanks to God the Father Who has made us worthy to share the lot of the saints in light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness, and transferred us into the kingdom of His beloved Son, in Whom we have our redemption through His blood, the remission of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature. For in Him were created all things in the heavens and on the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether Thrones, or Dominations, or Principalities, or Powers. All things have been created through and unto Him, and He is before all creatures, and in Him all things hold together. 

Once we have this proper perspective in mind, Cardinal Newman's advice on how to act in politics will make much more sense and we will be able to apply his words fruitfully to our lives:

We need not be angry nor use contentious words, and yet may firmly give our opinion, in proportion as we have the means of forming one, and be zealous towards God in all active good service, and scrupulously and pointedly aloof from the bad men whose evils arts we fear.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Happy Von Steuben Day!

Tomorrow is the birthday of Friedrich von Steuben, a German aristocrat and soldier who came to the infant United States to assist in the War of Independence.

Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben was born in Magdeburg, Prussia in 1730. Young Friedrich's father fought on behalf of the Tsarina of Russia, and therefore the son spent several years there.  He was later educated by Jesuits and served on his first campaign with his father at the age of 14.  He rose through the ranks of the Royal Prussian Army and became aide-de-camp (personal assistant) to King Friedrich the Great.  In 1771 von Steuben was made a baron.  Having suffered from debt, military politics, and unproven accusations of illicit relations for more than a decade, he came to America in 1777 to offer his services.

Von Steuben was named inspector general of the young Continental Army and brought a professional's eye to sanitation, record-keeping, procurement, and military drill.  Initially lacking command of the English language, he wrote his orders in French and had them translated.  He was attached to the headquarters of George Washington and Nathanel Greene and commanded a division in the Yorktown campaign.  After the war he oversaw the founding of the Society of the Cincinnati and became an elder of the German Reformed Church.

Although German-Americans are the largest ethnic group in the country, Von Steuben Day (observed on various days by locality) is less well known than such holidays as St. Patrick's Day, Marti Gras, and Cinco de Mayo.  Nevertheless, there are annual parades in his honor - and in honor of America's German-American heritage - in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia.  Numerous cities and counties have been named in his honor, including Steubenville, Ohio and, by extension, the Franciscan University of Steubenville.  He is also honored, alongside three other foreign volunteers, with a statue in Lafayette Square, just north of the White House.

Notably, the Steuben Society, an educational, fraternal, and patriotic organization of German-Americans, was created and named in his honor in 1919, in the aftermath of World War I and the anti-German sentiment it engendered.  This is not just a matter of history; my family's local church, part of the Evangelical denomination, was vandalized during the war for the simple reason that the inscription over the door was in German.  The creation of the Steuben Society is both a warning of the dangers of nativism and a reminder of America's diverse immigrant population from the country's earliest days.

Tomorrow, in honor of Friedrich von Steuben, our family will be flying our new German flag.

Today's image comes from the National War College, via Wikipedia.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

John Henry Newman on a Christian's Duty in Politics

Cardinal Newman provides, in the midst of a most turbulent election season in America, a pertinent reminder of how a Christian is to fulfill his duties in the temporal sphere:

A more difficult duty is that of passing judgment (as a Christian is often bound to do) on events of the day and public men. It becomes his duty, in proportion as he has station and influence in the community, in order that he may persuade others to think as he does. Above all, clergymen are bound to form and pronounce an opinion. It is sometimes said, in familiar language, that a clergyman should have nothing to do with politics. This is true, if it be meant that he should not aim at secular objects, should not side with a political party as such, should not be ambitious of popular applause, or the favour of great men, should not take pleasure and lose time in business of this world, should not be covetous. But if it means that he should not express an opinion and exert an influence one way rather than another, it is plainly unscriptural. Did not the Apostles, with all their reverence for the temporal power, whether Jewish or Roman, and all their separation from worldly ambition, did they not still denounce their rulers as wicked men, who had crucified and slain the Lord's Christ? and would they have been as a city on a hill if they had not done so? If, indeed, this world's concerns could be altogether disjoined from those of Christ's Kingdom, then indeed all Christians (laymen as well as clergy) should abstain from the thought of temporal affairs, and let the worthless world pass down the stream of events till it perishes; but if (as is the case) what happens in nations must affect the cause of religion in those nations, since the Church may be seduced and corrupted by the world, and in the world there are myriads of souls to be converted and saved, and since a Christian nation is bound to become part of the Church, therefore it is our duty to stand as a beacon on a hill, to cry aloud and spare not, to lift up our voice like a trumpet, and show the people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins. And all this may be done without injury to our Christian gentleness and humbleness, though it is difficult to do it. We need not be angry nor use contentious words, and yet may firmly give our opinion, in proportion as we have the means of forming one, and be zealous towards God in all active good service, and scrupulously and pointedly keep aloof from the bad men whose evil arts we fear.

--John Henry Newman, "Profession without Ostentation," in Parochial and Plain Sermons, Volume 1, Sermon 12