Sunday, December 23, 2012

Ancient Carols and the Gospel Story: "Es Kommt Ein Schiff Geladen"

I've noted here before that I love many of the ancient European Advent and Christmas hymns. Part of what attracts me to them is how beautifully they summarize the heart of the gospel message for a people most of whom didn't read, and who therefore heard the scriptures proclaimed through sermons, but also in plays, song, and liturgy, and through the iconography of their churches. This year, I've listened to many different renditions of the old German carol Es kommt ein Schiff geladen. I've just uploaded one of these, by Gießen's Cantamus choir.

If you're able to puzzle out German, there's good commentary on the carol, with its text, at this Wikipedia article. Katya's Thoughts from the Physics Chick blog also has interesting things to say about this carol, with links to a number of different performances.

As the Wikipedia piece notes, the text of the carol has been attributed to the 14th-century Rhineland mystic, Johannes Tauler, a Dominican and a disciple of Meister Eckhart. Further good commentary on Tauler and the text is at the site.

As many readers will know, the mysticism of the medieval German Rhineland and Low Countries was noteworthy for its "homely" recognition of God's loving nearness to anyone, rich or poor, lay or religious. Thomas à Kempis's Imitation of Christ, a classic spiritual work familiar to many English-speaking Catholics because of its wide circulation in the British Isles and the United States in the post-Reformation period, is rooted in this rich spiritual milieu of Rhineland-Low Country medieval Catholicism.

Some passages of à Kempis, which to my mind sum up central tenets of this school of mysticism, have resonated deeply for me over many years. I've always been taken by the sections of Imitation of Christ which ask why so many of us are so taken with the thought of traveling to far-away, exotic places to find God (hint: think of the emphasis in medieval Catholicism on making one's way to Rome if at all possible) when God is fully present and accessible wherever we happen to be--including in our workplaces, an idea that was in itself considered exotic at a point in the history of Catholic spirituality when many people viewed the vowed life, not the lay vocation, as the royal path to union with God.

Tauler went so far as to teach that one can receive the Eucharist in a spiritual sense--that one can commune with God as if one is receiving the Eucharist--without physically partaking of communion. à Kempis echoes this idea.

As I say, what touches my soul in many of these ancient Advent-Christmas hymns is the striking way in which they sum up the whole gospel. I'm tempted, as I hear lines in these hymns, to wonder if many of us who are Christians (read: me) tend to lose sight of some central things that the gospel says to us as we focus on parsing and understanding in highly intellectual terms. It sometimes seems to me that the more one is certain one has the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the gospel message, the more inclined one (read: me) may be to overlook what's really significant in the gospels.

And so I love this hymn that images the Virgin Mary as a ship so fully laden with God's grace intent on taking human flesh that its sail is Love and its mast the Holy Spirit . . . . I tend to think that the supreme importance of love in the gospel message gets overlooked by many of us (read: me) who are certain we understand the gospel today.

P.S. Up to about the 1:30 mark, the video shows the Gießen choir rehearsing. The performance of the carol begins then. The tune for this ancient carol is said to be a German folk tune to which Tauler's text was set perhaps around 1600.

My apologies that the original heading for this posting got the title of the carol wrong. I had Es ist ein Ros entsprungen on the brain as I typed it.

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