Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas Wish

I first heard this lovely text as a reading at the Lessons and Carols Service held each year in Kirkpatrick Chapel at Rutgers.  It was December of 1974, and I was an eager (and admittedly rather pretentious) first-year student--we called them "freshmen" then.  Robert Tanksley, then the new chaplain at Rutgers, continued a tradition established by his predecessor, Brad Abernethy, and read this near the end of the service.

It must be said that this is probably a 20th-century forgery.  The first time it shows up is in the 1930s, as a Christmas card from Greville MacDonald, the son of a celebrated British novelist, George MacDonald.  While it purports to be from 1513 and authored by "Fra Giovanni," it's not certain who this Giovanni was.  It's often attributed to Giovanni Giocondo, a celebrated architect, but there is really no evidence to support this claim.  What's even more telling is that the text never appears in any other translation--some variants drop part of the text, but all of them use exactly the same wording.  I've also never found any trace of the original language, which would probably have been Italian, although it might have been Latin.  Either way, if it were a genuine sixteenth-century artifact, it would turn up in its original form, with at least a couple of different English renditions.

In the end, of course, it doesn't really matter:  the sentiment is beautiful.  I especially like the exhortation to look.  At different times in my life, other bits of it have resonated with me.  The idea that beauty lies beneath the surface of our difficulties is particularly meaningful to me now.  So no matter where and with whom this originated, I hope you find something here that uplifts you.

A Letter to the Most Illustrious the Contessina Allagia Dela Aldobrandeschi, 
Written Christmas Eve Anno Domini 1513

I am your friend, and my love for you goes deep.  There is nothing I can give you which you have not got. But there is much, very much, that, while I cannot give it, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in today. Take heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present little instant. Take peace!

The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. There is radiance and glory in darkness, could we but see. And to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to look.

Life is so generous a giver, but we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love, by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the angel's hand that brings it to you.

Everything we call a trial, a sorrow or a duty, believe me, that angel's hand is there; the gift is there, and the wonder of an overshadowing presence. Your joys, too, be not content with them as joys. They, too, conceal diviner gifts.

Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty beneath its covering, that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven. Courage then to claim it; that is all! But courage you have, and the knowledge that we are pilgrims together, wending through unknown country home.

And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you; not quite as the world sends greetings, but with profound esteem, and with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.

And that is my wish for you, too: that you find joy in all you do, especially at this time of the year with its outpouring of generosity, journeys homeward, love, wondrous music, and magical light.

Merry Christmas to you, wherever you are, whether near or far.  Be well.

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