Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Cry of a Tiny Babe

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Picture from here.

The gospel for this Sunday has me thinking of of the lyrics of another fine song by Bruce Cockburn:

Mary grows a child without the help of a man
Joseph get upset because he doesn't understand
Angel comes to Joseph in a powerful dream
Says "God did this and you're part of his scheme"
Joseph comes to Mary with his hat in his hand
Says "forgive me I thought you'd been with some other man"
She says "what if I had been - but I wasn't anyway and guess what
I felt the baby kick today"

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe

The child is born in the fullness of time
Three wise astrologers take note of the signs
Come to pay their respects to the fragile little king
Get pretty close to wrecking everything
'Cause the governing body of the whole land
Is that of Herod, a paranoid man
Who when he hears there's a baby born King of the Jews
Sends death squads to kill all male children under two
But that same bright angel warns the parents in a dream
And they head out for the border and get away clean

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe

There are others who know about this miracle birth
The humblest of people catch a glimpse of their worth
For it isn't to the palace that the Christ child comes
But to shepherds and street people, hookers and bums
And the message is clear if you've got ears to hear
That forgiveness is given for your guilt and your fear
It's a Christmas gift you don't have to buy
There's a future shining in a baby's eyes

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe
- Bruce Cockburn, Cry of a Tiny Babe (Nothing But a Burning Light)

I appreciate the humanness of the first verse. Given they were real flesh and blood people, I can imagine the conversation between Mary and Joseph going something like this. The second verse is a stark reminder that many continue to suffer at the hands of despots and death squads. And that even when we want to do right, as did the "wise" astrologers, evil is close at hand (Romans 7) and we often come pretty close to wrecking everything. The last verse is particularly moving with its affirmation that there is a future shining in this Baby's eye giving us each a glimpse of our worth and the promise of forgiveness. And the refrain is evocative. The disruption of a stone splashing into a still river and redemption ripping through the surface of time cautions against the temptation to sentimentalize and domesticate the Christmas story. Something fundamentally disruptive occurs in the Incarnation. And that is where the hope is. In a world such as ours, something - some One - has to disrupt the usual flow of things to bring redemption.

Here are some comments on the song from Cockburn himself which can be found here:
'Cause the governing body of the holy land is that of Herod, a paranoid man, when he hears there was born a baby King of the Jews, sends death squads to kill all male children under two.' I wanted to put it into terms people can relate to now, because the story itself is so familiar, that its been reduced to traditional images that really work against our understanding of it as a human story. A story that happens to people. You know Joseph's got a saint in front of his name and Mary's got a halo. Those images are so entrenched in people's minds. The fun part of writing a song about it was to crack those images and try to see through to the lives of the people who were directly affected by those events."
-- from "Bruce Cockburn an Update" by Lahri Bond in the June/July 1992 Dirty Linen

I wanted to write a Christmas song. I went at it like trying to tell the Bible story but put it in modern terms. Like the Goddard movie "Joseph and Mary". I thought the story in the Bible is such an interesting story, but you forget how interesting it is because it's held up as a cliche so much to us. And over the years people have lost their humanity, who are in the story, and they've become larger-than-life figures. And I just thought it would be interesting to play at putting them in a human context. So Mary becomes a little bit shrewish and has a little bit of an attitude. The classic Mary figure, the Madonna - the original Madonna - is a far cry from any young Jewish mother I've ever run across [Laughs]. So I wanted to get it into something that people could relate to.
-- from "Closer to the Light with Bruce Cockburn" by Paul Zollo, SongTalk, vol.4, issue 2, 1994.

We've tended to lose sight of the reality of that story, of the immediacy of that story because it's so tied up in historical baggage. Mary is always the Madonna with a blue vale and everything. But in the story Mary is a woman who finds herself pregnant and can't explain it to anyone, especially Joseph who's kind enough not to want to see her executed but is sort of trying to extricate himself from the situation. You figure what must have been going through their heads at that time, I wanted to do a song that would address that fact-the humanity of the people involved.
-- from "Bruce Cockburn: The Soul of a Man", by Michael Case, Umbrella magazine, year unknown.

Collect for Advent 4:
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
- Book of Common Prayer, p. 212


Bryan Owen said...

That really is a great Bruce Cockburn song from a solid album. Thanks for the reminder.

Another great Christmas song by a rock band is The Band's "Christmas Must Be Tonight."

Matt Gunter said...

Thanks, Bryan, for passing on the other song. That got me thinking about others. For example, Jethro Tull has a Christmas song on their Living in the Past album.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! I am not familiar with Bruce Cockburn (at least in name)!

Matt Gunter said...

I'm always glad to introduce someone to Bruce Cockburn. I confess I'm a bit of a proselytizer. I'd start with Waiting for a Miracle since it is a good overview of his early stuff.
My top five albums would be:

1. Humans
2. Dancing in the Dragons Jaws
3. Charity of the Night
4. Nothing but a Burning Light
5. Inner City Front

But then there is also Into the Falling Dark, Stealing Fire, Etc., etc.

Cockburn is widely recognized as a master of the guitar and his all instrumental, Speechless, is wonderful.