Christmas 5: Heaven’s Eternal Christmas

Puer-natus-1553-lossius-melancthon-descantToday’s reading tells the story of Jesus being presented to Simeon, the faithful follower of God who had waited in expectation of the “consolation of Israel” for all of his life and could now be “dismissed in peace”.

In keeping with this theme of “consolation” – a favourite of mine at this blog! – today’s poem is a translation of an old hymn with an interesting history. Originally the Latin hymn “Puer Natus in Bethlehem”, it got a new life in the nineteenth century thanks to another favourite of mine, the mutton-chopped pastor and poet N.F.S. Grundtvig, who translated it to make the popular Danish Christmas song, “Et barn er født i Bethlehem” (“A baby is born in Bethlehem”). Today I’m adding another layer to that translation history, with my translation of the first six verses of Grundtvig’s hymn. You can also listen to a demo recording of the song set to my own tune – not an amazing recording, sorry, but it should give you an idea of how to sing it. I’ve also repeated the first verse at the end, this time in Danish, to show how the meter works in each language. May you rejoice in the consolation of not just Israel but all the world this Christmas.

A Baby’s Born in Bethlehem

A baby’s born in Bethlehem,
So rejoice, Jerusalem.
Alleluia, alleluia…

A lowly virgin, hidden, poor,
Delivers heaven’s Son, the Lord.
Alleluia, alleluia…

In a crib they laid him down,
The angels sang a joyful sound.
Alleluia, alleluia…

And from the east, wise men sacrificed
Gold, frankincense and myrrh refined.
Alleluia, alleluia…

And now are all our trials gone,
For on this day our saviour’s born.
Alleluia, alleluia…

So God’s people, now restored, can praise
In heaven’s eternal Christmas day.
Alleluia, alleluia…

Poetic Translations: The King and the Maiden

One of the great mysteries and wonders that we can be reflecting on this Advent season is the Incarnation: the mystery that the God of the universe would become a human, even a defenceless baby. To explore this mystery, Søren Kierkegaard tells the story of a king who loves a poor and humble girl and wants her to be lifted by his love, not always ashamed of the difference between them. Here is a slightly playful, poetic translation of the story. You can find fuller, more accurate renditions of it in abundance online, but they often leave out the playfulness of Kierkegaard’s style. So here is my offering, for what it is worth. May it give some food for thought this advent.
 

You ask me how God might be teacher
 	and saviour;
you ask how His love might drive Him to teach.
You ask how His Love could love over vast distance
as divides all low learners from this teacher of Love?

Well, once upon a time, a king loved a maiden –

	No, wait! Is this kids’ stuff?
		A fairy tale? Where
	is the systematic doctrine?
		Don’t patronise
			with tales…

Well, so thought old Athens, when Socrates spoke
of food, and drink, and doctors, and trifles;
I wish I could only speak of such trifles,
for we all, from birth, understand food and drink
(and the need to see doctors)
and the high ways of kings are so often removed
from the eating and drinking of mere men.

But let us move on; we mustn’t get stuck.
A king loved a maiden; let’s leave it like that.
And this king, unlike poets, was not tied up tight
with the “wisdom” that hampers clear-headedness; he
loved that low maiden (this much we’ve seen),
and he loved her without the High Rule of a king.

His courtiers said, What a favour the king
will bestow on the low one! These words made him sick.
They drove him to fury; that wasn’t his love.
He would love her, this maiden, 
      such that she’d never see
a high, lofty patron, 
      a detached, distant king.

Impossible! say the king’s courtiers. You
are the king! 		Overshadow her 
with your king’s grandeur!
Make her feel lowly! 	Unworthy! 	You’re king!

How can Love straddle
 the high and low 	yet
not overshadow the low 	into their grave?

Love must become
like the lowly it loves.

The teacher must be like the student;
 	the king
must make Himself low	
	
	like the maiden.

(Adapted and translated from Søren Kierkegaard, “God as Teacher and Saviour (Guden som Lærer og Frelser)”, from Philosophical Fragments (Philosophiske Smuler), http://sks.dk/ps/txt.xml)

In Translation: Restless Heart/Urolige Hjerte

grundtvig.dk
Herre, du har skabt os til dig, og vort hjerte er uroligt, indtil det finder hvile hos dig.
Lord, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.
(St Augustine, Confessions)

When I first started learning Danish last year and was looking for anything to help me, I stumbled across an eerily beautiful song called “Urolige Hjerte” by Kloster. Though all I could tell you about the song at the time was that it had something to do with hearts, I was drawn to the song from the start, finding it strangely comforting. Then I learnt that the song was a hymn by 19th-century Danish pastor, poet and educational philosopher N.F.S. Grundtvig. I’ve since written about Grundtvig on this blog and have had a wild stab at some translation of another of his texts. But all this time I’ve been working away at translating “Urolige Hjerte” into English, finding no other full translation of it anywhere online (only this paraphrase, which was still very helpful for some of Grundtvig’s trickier expressions.)

Thanks go to Mikael Rahbæk Andreasen of Kloster, both for first introducing me to this hymn and for giving generous help and guidance in the translation.

Restless Heart (Urolige Hjerte) – N.F.S. Grundtvig

Restless heart, what ails you?
What makes you feel so much pain?
Is He not your very good Father,
Who over everything reigns?
Does He not know your every thought?
Has He not counted the hairs on your head?
Has not He chosen you to be
His very closest friend?

And have you not that precious gift,
That rare, cherished hope?
Or don’t you remember your baptism waters,
And the words that Jesus spoke?
Words that only fit the ones
Who enter God’s heaven, true?
Weren’t the words He spoke to you,
“Peace be with you”?

What then, my soul, can harm you
When you’ve the peace of God?
God’s angels are all joyful,
Forever, on and on.
Will you not join the heavenly shout?
She holds wide the door, God’s loveliest bride.
Won’t you, joyful, come inside,
Embraced by their, “Welcome from God”?

The heavenly bride now enters;
She firmly takes her hold,
With all the bold ones, the warriors,
The ones who strive for their God.
Where the bride has her house, there God’s angels will be.
Where she dwells in stillness, there all worries will end.
There lives all our hope,
And our faith is firmly held.

Restless heart, hold fast:
Let the peace of God enclose you.
Soon all of our pain will dull
And fade away from view.
God’s peace is like a much-prized queen;
Who binds to her is truly wise,
And where she sits upon her throne
Is God’s paradise.

Poetic Translations: From the Aphorisms of Søren Kierkegaard

What is a poet?
An unhappy man who
deep in his heart hides
anguish, but whose lips
are so comprised that
when he screams
he makes sweet music.

I’d rather be
a swineherd of the hills
understood by pigs
than a poet
misunderstood by men.

***

I prefer to speak to children.
At least of them one may hope
that here will grow
a Reasonable Being.
But to those who think they have arrived already…
God have mercy.

***

Hear this marvel.
To the seventh heaven I was lifted,
and there all the gods sat together in council,
granting me one wish.
“What do you ask for?” Mercury spoke.
“Is it power, or youth, or beauty, long life?
The most beautiful girl?
Or any of what we have to give?
But only take one. What shall it be?”

I paused for a moment,
thrown by the choice,
then I spoke:
“I ask only this:
that laughter might always be on my side.”
Silence. Not one of the gods said a word.
They only laughed, and I thought it was apt.
It would have been crude to say,
“As you wish.”