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Ordinary Time 2017

16 December 2004
engineering - Christmas carol

"The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there's a problem with a road, they always try to add something," [Hans] Monderman says. "To my mind, it's much better to remove things."

-McNichol, Tom. "Roads Gone Wild." Wired Magazine 12 December 2004.

next exit, a really long rambling article that ultimately compares liturgy to traffic for some reasonRemove things: that's a radical approach to traffic engineering, Hans. But I like it. I really do. And it has me thinking about what we can remove from our Americanized "Christvent" (a societal merging of church and state, Advent and Christmas that seems to happen this time of year) that will make us more faithful to each other and to the biblical narrative we celebrate.

There's a lot I want to remove from people sometimes: the credit cards, the right to vote, etc.

But to start with, let's take away "The first Nowell."

Why would you want to take away that perfectly innocent 17th century English carol?

Most people don't think carefully about the words of this carol. If they did, they would be confused, especially if they examined the corresponding gospel passages. For instance, the shepherds see the star "shining in the East," but later it settles over "the northwest."

Well, where the star is depends on where you are looking at it from.

Your preposition is dangling

I mean, it depends on from where you are looking at it.

Right. And how does it "come to rest," exactly? Not to mention that according to the gospels, the shepherds never saw the star . . .

They didn't?

No. Clearly Matthew and Luke didn't compare notes on this. Luke writes about shepherds and angels (not wise guys), and Matthew writes about astrologers and a star (not sheep herders). And don't even get John started. He's too busy rambling on about "in the beginning was the Word and blah, blah, blah."

To what extent can "The first Nowell" be blamed for the sappy, conflated birth narrative celebrated in this country? Did we get our mixed up shepherds-see-the-star story from this carol, or is the carol's popularity due to an errant way of thinking? Either way, "The first Nowell" is at least partly responsible for an American Christvent pageant atmosphere that doesn't allow us to examine these two distinct events, shepherds and magi, on their own terms.

This carol is so tainted for me that at the words "the star drew nigh to the northwest" I have inexplicable visions of an astrological anomaly coming to hover over Puget Sound as if sanctifying all of Microsoft and announcing Bill Gates as the Messiah.

So, everything happens at once in this carol, but why?

Good question! Isn't it amazing enough that the shepherds heard the terrifying song of the angels? And hasn't the opening of this song begun the Gloria, a staple of the liturgy, for thousands of years?

Isn't it incredible enough to contemplate the rich symbolism in the presence and presents of the magi: a journey to Herod and ultimately Jesus with the royalty of expensive gold, the sweetness and of fragrant incense, the bitterness of embalming myrrh as cargo?

Apparently not! The two events are blended on "frappe" and the result is poetic and theological goop.

Well, it's not really about the words. It's about the tune.

Oh really? You mean a tune that Erik Routley calls "so familiar that it is seldom realised [sic] what a very peculiar tune it in fact is?" You mean a tune that was probably once a descant to another tune? A tune whose stanzas and refrain consist of essentially the same musical material? Singing this tune's praises makes about as much sense as achieving National Anthem singability through key change.

Yeah, but [singing:] Nowell, Nowell . . .

Okay, Nowell. What does that even mean? My father scrambled the letters in out "Noel" decoration to spell the name of the college my sister attends. It's also fun to spell "Leon." That makes about as much sense as anything else.

Surely some people know what "Nowell" means.

I would bet the proportion of Americans who know the location of Iraq is comparable to the number of Christians who know how to translate "Nowell."

Okay, what does it mean?

I'll tell you after the article, Hans. But when you take into account the mixed-up narrative and, for most people, the meaningless "Nowell," you have to realize that this carol amounts to unbounded sentimentality. Is this really of adequate musical consequence for the liturgy?

I see your point. So that's why you want to get rid of it.

From Christian worship, yes. Christvent exists because we give in to society's demand for instant gratification through sentimentality in our worship.

Somehow it all works. The drivers slow to gauge the intentions of crossing bicyclists and walkers. Negotiations over right-of-way are made through fleeting eye contact. Remarkably, traffic moves smoothly around the circle with hardly a brake screeching, horn honking, or obscene gesture. "I love it!" Monderman says at last. "Pedestrians and cyclists used to avoid this place, but now, as you see, the cars look out for the cyclists, the cyclists look out for the pedestrians, and everyone looks out for each other. You can't expect traffic signs and street markings to encourage that sort of behavior. You have to build it into the design of the road."

If our liturgy is like busy traffic circle, which I think it is, how can we engineer it so that we are "looking out for each other"? What would our Christmas and especially our Advent liturgies look like if they were created light of God's expectations and not those of society?

Let's start removing things and find out.

Amen. Come Lord Jesus.

Update, 1 January 2005: Another good article about the emergent traffic anti-engineering movement.
Baker, Linda. "Why don't we do it in the road?"
Salon.com 20 May 2004.

Tangents: Potential four-letter names for first-born son: Hans, Luke, John, Erik, Leon.

The opposite of Christvent is "Admas." When glossy advertising material outweighs informational newsprint in the Sunday paper, this is Admas. Or it's Mt. Ansel Admas, or Admas the band, or Admas Limited Health Consultants, or a font development project, or an Ethiopian college, or it really is advertising.

 
 
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