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.

Uncovered Gems #5: The Danish Psalmist

In the Danish Golden Age of literature and philosophy, there were three significant names that still stand out today: Hans Christian Andersen, Søren Kierkegaard and N.F.S. Grundtvig. The non-Danish world has very much heard of the first two but the third is as unknown as it is unpronounceable.

And perhaps understandably so. He is of much greater importance at home than overseas. Grundtvig (pronounced Groont-vi) had a significant impact on Danish nationalism and education, and his role in the Danish Lutheran church was profound. But outside Denmark he doesn’t seem so have had much impact. Nor is he particularly the kind of figure to easily win fans a century and a half after his death. With his formidable muttonchops, Lutheran clerical ruff and an almost permanently austere look on his face, Grundtvig does not exactly appear to be one to welcome 21st-century popularity. My first encounter with him was when ultra-right party leader Svend Åge Saltum quoted him in Danish political drama Borgen. Yet there is much more to Nicolaj Frederik Severin than austerity and Danish nationalism. Basically, imagine English church life without John Newton or the Wesleys and that would be the Danish church without Grundtvig. And the comparison’s a fair one, at least when it comes to his hymns, because it turns out that one way in which Grundtvig is kept alive and well is in Danish worship.

My first proper encounter with the 19th-century poet, pastor, philosopher and translator was in the music of Danish band Kloster who set a whole bunch of his hymns to some gorgeous, otherworldly tunes on their album Ni Salmer og en Aftensang (Nine Psalms and an Evening Song). The track that first arrested me was the magically tender “Urolige Hjerte“, with its gently thrumming guitars and the opening words:

Restless heart, what ails you?
Why are you in pain?
Is there anything you need?
Is He not your father who has your everything?
And aren’t all my thoughts and hairs numbered by Him?
And hasn’t He chosen me to be His best friend?

Urolige hjerte!
Hvad fejler dig dog?
Hvi gør du dig smerte,
du ej har behov?
Er han ej min Fader, som råder for alt?
Er ej mine tanker og hovedhår talt,
og har ej den bedste til ven mig udvalgt?

Sadly, lack of interest in Grundtvig’s poetry means that almost none of it is available easily in English – a little ironic for a man who translated one of the most significant English poems, Beowulf, back into the language that inspired it. There is one substantial collection of his poems in English but it’s expensive and not easily available. So, if I want to listen to his songs – which I do – and want to understand them too, then I have to try translating them myself.

It’s a wonderful experience, reverse-engineering a Grundtvig poem into English. Translating poetry is hard in any situation, harder still when your grasp of the source language requires a fair bit of Google Translate to get anywhere beyond, “The polar bear is drinking beer” and all those other useful phases Duolingo teaches. But, slow-going and humbling as it is, I feel closer to Grundtvig’s work for doing it. I have to marvel at the tautness of his metaphors, the subtlety of his rhymes – so hard to replicate in English, when we don’t have one word that could mean both bleed or fade that also rhymes with “regions” or “areas”. And I am struck by the deft way he melds Biblical text with the immediacy of everyday life. Take the hymn that I’m crawling through at the moment, “En Liden Stund” (“A Little While”). The hymn takes its title, and the first line of each stanza, from Jesus’ words to the disciples in John 16:16 – “A little while and you will see me no longer…” But Grundtvig takes Jesus’ words and first looks at something that is beautiful and impermanent, a reminder of how our lives look next to eternity. There’s no translation that can fully capture what he says with the first lines, at least not without losing the rhyme:

A little while
in roses’ grove,
we only blush and fade…

En liden stund
I rosens lund
Vi rødmer kun og blegne…

For a man who looks most likely to either preach brimstone or thump the bar to ask where his Carlsberg is, there’s remarkable tenderness and pastoral heart in Grundtvig’s words, not to mention a sense of pure beauty. Like most nineteenth-century poets there’s some inverted sentences worked to fit in rhymes that sound sometimes cumbersome to our ears today. But his love for God and God’s people is fresh and alive. Not surprisingly; much as Kierkegaard laid into him in his final polemic days (Grundtvig, wisely, had less to say about Kierkegaard), they wanted the same thing: to see the dry bones of the state church animated with living faith. Fittingly, Grundtvig loved to sing about new life in Christ, whether symbolised in Christmas or Easter or the day of the Resurrection. So here is a lovely translation by S.A.J. Bradley of one of his poems on this theme:

1. Ring out, O bells, oh ring out while the world yet lies darkling;
shimmer, O stars, like the light in the angel-eyes sparkling.
Peace comes to earth,
peace from God through his Word’s birth:
Glory to God in the highest!

2. Christmas is come as a solstice to hearts that were fearful!
Christmas and Child, son of God, where the angels sing cheerful,
all is God’s gift,
bidding us our hearts uplift:
Glory to God in the highest!

3. Children of earth clap your hands and come dancing and singing,
raise up your voices till earth’s furthest corners are ringing.
Born is the Child
of the Father’s mercy mild:
Glory to God in the highest!

Welcome, God’s Year

For many, 2016 will be a year that few will miss or wish to repeat. It was the year of Brexit and Trump, of many beloved public figures dying, and seemingly also a year of much personal hardship for many people. It was certainly the case for my wife and I this year. Yet I’m determined not to go down the path of declaring it an annus horribilis – not because I enjoyed the year, not because I would like to live it again, but because God’s grace is never absent, in any year, and His mercies are found everywhere.

Less significantly, 2016 was the year that I began to learn Danish. And while this might seem like nothing more than a curious idea of what constitutes a fun hobby, it meant that I was introduced to the poetry and hymns of the 19th century Danish pastor and writer N.F.S. Grundtvig – first via the music of Danish “pastoral folk band” Kloster (listen to their album “Ni Salmer Og En Aftensang” for some beautiful versions of hymns by Grundtvig and others, including Hans Christian Anderson). And, as I have been learning the language, I have been attempting also to translate some of Grundtvig’s lyrics into English.

Here, as a somewhat shoddy offering for the new year, is my rendering of his hymn, “Vær velkommen, Herrens år” (literally “Be welcome, the Lord’s Year”, original Danish text available here). It’s technically an Advent hymn, but looks at Advent as the beginning of the liturgical year, and charts how God’s grace is seen at every key moment of the Church Year. May it be something of a reminder to us that God is never absent from a  year and that no year can be an annus horribilis when we trace the workings of His grace through each day.

Welcome, God’s year,
And be welcome here.
On Christmas night, when the Lord was born,
A light came forth at the darkest dawn,
So welcome, new year. Welcome here.

Welcome, God’s year,
And be welcome here.
On Easter Morning, when the Lord was raised,
The Tree of Life took root in the grave,
So welcome, new year. Welcome here.

Welcome, God’s year,
And be welcome here.
On Pentecost Day, when God’s Spirit came down to us,
Then down came His power, into our weaknesses,
So welcome, new year. Welcome here.

Welcome, God’s year,
And be welcome here.
This now is God’s year, filled up with God’s favour,
New gladness is waiting in each day of God here,
So welcome, new year. Welcome here.

Unexpected Gifts

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Because the Danes
roared across the waves in Viking-
glory, horn-helmeted
King Cnut at the helm,

we can now say
that we are glad, can label small
what we’d otherwise miss,
and can cut with a knife

the smallest things
the eye can see. Come wind and hail,
though time may slay, we lay
cold and rain before the tide

of longing day.
Poetry from Vikings! The gift
of words like comfy shoes
we slip into and set

the day at rest –
Thank you, Cnut, and all who brought
words (and worlds) over waves –
and Søren, that least-like-

a-Viking Dane,
who stepped out of the longboat, saw
the gift of every day
in lilies clothed by God –

in awe, under
the thrall and whirl of tide, of time,
we take our seats until
smallest gifts can glitter.