Preparing the Way of the LORD

To be as inclusive as possible, Knox has both in-person and Podcast Services. For those who can’t access these we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my sermon notes into text.

As part of this week’s service, we listened to a recording of the “Huron Carol” made by Heather Dale, who gave us permission to use her material. Below is the link, along with some opening comments:

The music you are about to hear is the first two verses of Jesous Ahatonhia known in Voices United as “’Twas in the Moon of Wintertime”, repeated in the Original Wendat, in French and in English. This was written in the Wendat language by a Jesuit Missionary, Fr. Jean de Brébuf. We are grateful to Heather Dale, the artist, who has given us permission to play her recording for our service.

The English version she sings is a translation by another Jesuit, Fr. H. Kierans. While it is closer in meaning to the original than the words we know best, it is still not an accurate translation. I’ll get into that more in the sermon. All of the English and French translations available miss the subtlety and deeper cultural meanings tied up in the original Wendat words.

I wish to acknowledge the irony of our situation: as we look for the origins and original importance of this first North American hymn, written in an indigenous language by a European Scholar using an adapted folk tune from France, we find ourselves listening to a version recorded by a singer with proud Celtic roots, who worked hard with phonetic coaching to get her pronunciation right. We could not find a recording by Wendat singers.

John Steckley’s excellent translation of the original Wendat words can be found at the end of this blog.

Preparing the Way of the LORD

Scriptures: Malachi 3:1-4 Luke 3:1-6

The second Sunday is always about John the Baptist whom we see as the forerunner of Christ; the messenger sent to prepare the way of the Lord.

John is not easy for us to deal with. He is an angry prophet, calling the people to change their ways, to stop being unjust to others, to stop abusing each other, to straighten up and fly right.

This is a call to repentance, directed to the faith community itself; which strikes me as a really good cue for us to consider as a faith community today: modern Canadian Christians who have been shaped by our history. If we listen to John’s message we will recognize that we have some things to make right; understandings we have taken for granted that need to be examined in the light of day.

A powerful example of this is that favourite Christmas carol “’Twas in the Moon of Wintertime”. We celebrate it as the first North American hymn. Its music is haunting and beautiful and its words have become a challenge. Our feelings are mixed as people take pride in its history and wrestle with its condescending imagery.

The words we know best were written in 1926 by Jesse Edgar Middleton and are not so much a translation as a freely written interpretation of the original Wendat. Middleton took the idea of the Nativity from Brébuf’s original and expanded it with romantic notions of the Noble Savage, that very patronizing European approach to indigenous people that treats them like children without a mature culture. As has been pointed out many times before, when he calls God “Gitchi Manitou” he is using a name from a totally different culture and language, as if all things Native are interchangeable.

Even the words we heard earlier change the meaning of the original. There is no word for the Devil in Wendat. Brébuf refers to “the spirit who held us prisoner like domestic cattle” which fits the Catholic theology of that century. But as soon as we say “devil”, centuries of images and ideas flood into our minds which would not have been heard by the Wendat in this carol.

Brébuf also didn’t include all the characters of the Nativity; he only used Matthew’s image of the Magi. He would have done this intentionally since the Magi have always represented outsiders coming to the light of Christ.

Brébuf lived among the Wendat, learned their language until he was fluent and grew to understand their existing spiritual beliefs. He chose the tune of this hymn because there were some rhythmic similarities with Wendat music and he knew what an important place music held for them.

When he wrote about Sky People, which we usually translate as “angels”, he was making a reference to Wendat understandings of the spiritual dimension of life that surrounds us all the time. “Angels” isn’t a good translation because, once again, it carries all our baggage when we hear it. They would have heard something quite different.

What impresses me about this hymn in its original form is the way that Jean de Brébuf was respectful. He immersed himself in the Wendat language and culture; he tried to meet the people on their own terms while at the same time never losing his agenda of converting them to Christianity. And he avoided European images and terms: who among us would have expected a sign of respect to be massaging someone’s scalp with oil?

And yet, hearing it, I cannot help but recognize that this captures a sense that fits well with images from the earliest books of the Bible; like the great joy in the oil running down Aaron’s beard.

If you look at a good translation of the original words you see that at the core of Brébuf’s message is that Jesus wants to consider us part of his family.

This is a powerful and accurate New Testament image that the European church had down-played: the idea of Jesus as the Son of God and indeed, God in the flesh seemed too elevated for us to comfortably claim Jesus as brother; the Biblical idea of Jesus our brother never went away but it was not emphasized.

Brébuf offers this call to family connection, recognizing the strong family ties of the Wendat culture. This isn’t the “repent or you will be damned” message that we so often associate with missionaries. It is a much more respectful and meaningful effort to connect with people in ways that tie into their own spirituality.

Since this was written in 1642, Canada was formed, the Indian Act was created, the Residential Schools were formed and in the 1920s we turned Brébuf’s respectful hymn, with its admitted conversion agenda, into a patronizing song about “children of the forest free” that takes our own inaccurate picture of the nativity, where wise men and the shepherds come together (which they never did in the Bible) and substitutes for them stereotyped European images of First Nations people.

I don’t have a problem with the idea of sharing the teachings of Jesus.

If we believe in them, if we believe that they are good, then they are certainly worth sharing. But the only way we can do this well is if we are respectful; if we try to understand the people we are talking to; if we develop an understanding of where they are coming from and where our spiritual beliefs touch theirs. That’s how a respectful conversation can happen. The carol Jean de Brébuf wrote in 1642

was terribly enlightened by the standards of his age and by the standards of our own age, really.

He went in as a vulnerable person, into the Wendat lands and culture and listened before he shared. In the intervening centuries so much of what we have done has been from a position of power, forcing our religious beliefs on others, even taking children from their parents and putting them into abusive situations.

I would suggest that the call of John the Baptist today to us is for us to wrestle with our past, and our present; to see how many deep valleys need to be raised up and how many mountains brought low; how much injustice needs to be corrected; to prepare the way of the LORD; to build a land where the teachings of Jesus can actually come to life.

It takes an effort for us to examine a beloved Christmas carol and recognize its feet of clay. (Okay: I’m mixing Biblical metaphors atrociously.)

What else do we need to examine? How many other basic assumptions do we need to challenge? We won’t know until we look for them or, more likely, we let the perspectives of others reveal them to us.

I would love it if we could find words that would allow us to sing this carol in a way that reveals its original integrity to us and lets us glimpse the respectful interplay between 17th century theology and Wendat spiritual understandings. But that would be for our benefit – I don’t know whether it would contribute to reconciliation.

The Christianity that has abused so many Indigenous people has done so much damage that we have to prove that we can be respectful. We can’t just go back to a good example from 400 years ago; we have to listen to what our Indigenous neighbours are saying now and listen long and hard before we share what we consider important.

To make straight the way of the Lord in Canada today we’d better start with the paths we have twisted.


Huron-Wendat Carol

Translation by John Steckley

Have courage, you who are humans. Jesus, he is born
Behold, the spirit who had us as prisoners, domestic animals, has fled.
Do not listen to it, as it corrupts the spirit of our minds and thoughts.
Jesus, he is born

They are spirits, coming with a message for us, the sky people.
They are coming to say, “Be on top of life, rejoice!”
“Mary has just given birth, come on, rejoice.”
Jesus, he is born

“Three have left for such a place, they are elders.”
A star that has just risen, appeared over the horizon leads them there.
He will seize the path, lead the way, a star that leads them there.
Jesus, he is born

As they arrived there, where he was born, Jesus.
The star was at the point of stopping, he was not far past it
Having found someone for them, he says, “Come here.”
Jesus, he is born

Behold, they have arrived there and have seen Jesus,
They praised a name many times, saying, “Hurray, he is good in nature.”
They greeted him with respect, greasing his scalp many times, saying “Hurray!”
Jesus, he is born

“We will give to him praise, honour for his name.”
“Let us show reverence for him, as he comes to be compassionate with us.”
It is providential that you love us, and think, “I should make them part of my
Jesus, he is born.

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