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Monday, December 10, 2012

Huron Carol

I am more than a little shocked.  I just did a search of my own blog and found that I have never written about Jean de Brebeuf's amazing hymn sometimes called "Huron Carol" and sometimes known by its first line, "'Twas in the Moon of Wintertime".  I apologize for not writing about this before!

Jean de Brebeuf was a French missionary to the Huron in the early 1600's.  He came from France and lived among the Huron for years, traveling with them, learning their language and culture, and seeking to lead them to know Jesus Christ.  Some historians have called Brebeuf Canada's first ethnographer because of his strong interest in Huron culture and language.  He was eventually captured by the Iroquois, enemies of the Huron, and tortured to death.  In the 20th century he was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church and is today recognized as one of the patron saints of Canada.  (Interesting detail -- it is possible that Brebeuf coined the term "lacrosse" for the game played among the Huron, as he thought the sticks they used, with a loop of leather at the top fastened with a small cross-piece, resembled a bishop's crosier, or in French, "crosse.")

During the course of his time among the Huron, Brebeuf recognized that it was important to put the good news of Jesus into terms these people could understand.  Realizing that many elements of the Nativity (shepherds, stables, gold, frankincense, myrrh, etc.) would be strange to the Huron, he took the Christmas story and recast it in terms that would have been understandable to this fur-trading, hunter-gatherer people.   He then set the words to a popular French tune.  Here is a translation of his hymn recorded several years ago by Bruce Cockburn:

Have courage, you who are human beings: Jesus, he is born
The okie spirit who enslaved us has fled
Don't listen to him for he corrupts the spirits of our thoughts
Jesus, he is born

The okie spirits who live in the sky are coming with a message
They're coming to say, "Rejoice!
Mary has given birth. Rejoice!"
Jesus, he is born

Three men of great authority have left for the place of his birth
Tiscient, the star appearing over the horizon leads them there
That star will walk first on the bath to guide them
Jesus, he is born

The star stopped not far from where Jesus was born
Having found the place it said,
"Come this way"
Jesus, he is born

As they entered and saw Jesus they praised his name
They oiled his scalp many times, anointing his head
with the oil of the sunflower
Jesus, he is born

They say, "Let us place his name in a position of honour
Let us act reverently towards him for he comes to show us mercy
It is the will of the spirits that you love us, Jesus,
and we wish that we may be adopted into your family
Jesus, he is born 

The hymn was translated into English (and greatly altered) by Jesse Edgar Middleton in 1926.  Middleton muddled up the cultures and language a bit, adding "Gitche Manitou" as a name for God and romanticizing the "men of authority" into hunters who bring gifts of "fox and beaver pelt."  Still, the intent behind Middleton's translation is to show the story of Christmas transcending cultures, and that is worthy of applause.  This version has gained some currency among Native Americans, especially among the First Nations in Canada. Here is Middleton's version, and here is an excellent rendition of this version:

Twas in the moon of wintertime when all the birds had fled
That mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead
Before their light the stars grew dim
And wandering hunters heard the hymn,

Jesus your King is born
Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

Within a lodge of broken bark the tender babe was found
A ragged robe of rabbit skin enwrapped his beauty round
But as the hunter braves drew nigh
The angel song rang loud and high

The earliest moon of wintertime is not so round and fair
As was the ring of glory on the helpless infant there
The chiefs from far before him knelt
With gifts of fox and beaver pelt

O children of the forest free, O sons of Manitou
The Holy Child of earth and heaven is born today for you.
Come kneel before the radiant boy
Who brings you beauty peace and joy

It is worth thinking about how we communicate about Jesus to those who don't know him.  Christians are notorious for speaking in the religious shorthand of their own faith, using the "Christianese" words like salvation, atonement, sin, redemption, and so on.  While among theologians these words have specific meanings and are often helpful, they are an abomination when it comes to communicating Jesus to non-theologically trained people.  What Brebeuf did, simply is this:

1. He lived among people he wanted to reach, cared for them, and learned their language and their culture.
2. He found ways to tell the stories of Jesus in terms they could understand.
3. He invested himself, even to the point of giving up his own life, so that they might know Jesus.

This has been the basic model for Jesus-followers to do evangelism throughout the centuries.  Sadly, it is a rare thing today, largely because we have lost sight of the need to get beyond ourselves and make the cross-cultural move to reach another's heart.  Perhaps we have lost sight of the fact that this is exactly what Jesus did for us!

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