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Posts Tagged 'sherlock holmes'

In which the author takes note of the BBC’s plan to take over the minds of American geeks

Cliff Watson as the Usher, Tom Derbyshire as the Learned Judge, and Yours Truly as the Defendant. The martini glass was my own touch. (Bridesmaids, left to right: Kathleen Gillette, Angie Bartels, Tessa Studebaker, Katie Edwards, Winchee Lin, and Hollis Heron. My friends, if any of you are reading this, it's really hard to believe that was a decade ago this year. I miss you all terribly. It's been too long. I really didn't think I'd be out here anywhere close to this length of time, and now I don't have any idea about what would ever bring me back. To say nothing of the fact that I expect I would only ever be in the audience anymore for SG&S even if I were back.)

I can’t really claim to have ever legitimately been an Anglophile. I obviously was fascinated by Sherlock Holmes as a little kid, and reading “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” inspired me to badger my mother into preparing a goose and plum pudding for Christmas when I was nine years old, then for a few years I ran in Episcopalian circles (which isn’t really the same as being an Anglican, I eventually decided, but it’s as close as you can get in some parts of the country), had a stint in the Tudor Choir, honeymooned in Victoria, B. C., and also sang a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan. Still, I never actually went to England before five years ago, I never cared much about the Union Jack or tea or the Queen Mum (or any of the royals, really), and really couldn’t tell you the first thing about Winston Churchill. The way to put it that is at once most accurate and charitable is that, if anything, I was an Anglophile wannabe.

My love of Sherlock Holmes meant that my formative Holmes actor was Jeremy Brett, whom I saw on Mystery! probably starting in 1985. He was not only formative, but normative —  the gold standard in the way that Batman: The Animated Series is the gold standard of Batman interpretations regardless of medium. I do have to confess, however, that the first screen Holmes to captivate me was Christopher Plummer in the, uh, criminally underrated 1979 Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper film Murder by Decree (directed by Bob Clark, which is rather curious since he is probably most famous for A Christmas Story) (and Decree is also quite notable for having James Mason as Watson). The first time I saw that was probably in 1982 or 1983 on late night television — I remember my dad pulling me out of bed because he correctly thought I’d probably be interested in seeing it. There was also a production of The Hound of the Baskervilles at Woodinville High School in 1984 that I remember seeing — one of my teachers took me to see it, and I also recall that the actor who played Holmes came out after the play and talked to me for a little while. Can’t remember the guy’s name, but I remember being blown away by him.

Doctor Who I became aware of probably starting in 1989 when I began reading Starlog, and I remember seeing bits and pieces on PBS here and there. I think the part that sticks out most in my memory is catching the end of The Armageddon Factor. For better or for worse, however, the first Doctor Who I ever watched in its entirety was the 1996 Fox TV movie with Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor and Eric Roberts as the Master. I certainly enjoyed it well enough to be part of the letter-writing campaign that tried to get Fox to pick it up as a series (as well as to save Strange Luck, but something about having historically been a fan of horrifically lost causes comes leaping to mind), but obviously that didn’t happen.

Skipping ahead to 2004, I read about Christopher Eccleston being cast as the Doctor in a relaunch of Doctor Who. Interesting, I thought, but how will I ever actually have the chance to see it? I don’t have cable, and I don’t really have time to organize my life around watching a TV show anyway.

Over the next few years, mostly through reading Neil Gaiman’s blog, I would catch bits of Doctor Who news here and there — David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, and then, after apparently months of speculation that it would be Lenny Henry Paterson Joseph, Matt Smith — wait, who? — as the Eleventh Doctor. I had absolutely no idea what any of this meant, but it sure sounded like it would be worth watching if I ever had the chance. Also, around this time, mostly due to reading TheOneRing.Net and seeing lots of speculation about Martin Freeman as Bilbo, I started hearing things about a TV series based on the idea of a modernized Sherlock Holmes.

Well, in the fall of 2010, finding myself with a wife out of the country and our big TV out in the middle of the living room while my friend Phil Woodward lived in the second bedroom where the TV used to be, I decided I wanted to be able to watch Netflix Streaming on the TV. I had been able to plug my laptop into the set, but I could only do video — the video/audio-to-HDMI converters I had tried burned out within minutes, so I could watch the video on TV but I had to listen to it through the laptop speakers. The trouble was that we bought a Blu-Ray player right before Netflix Streaming had become standard on them, I didn’t really want to buy another Blu-Ray deck just for that functionality, and if Flesh of My Flesh had come home to us owning a Wii or an Xbox or some other gaming unit, she would have divorced me instantly (which in Indiana I believe involves a rusty pair of scissors and a clamp). I know, I know, First World Problems. In any case, I was persuaded by some poking around that AppleTV was the most cost-effective solution for my particular circumstances, and thus I brought one of the little black boxes home one day.

When I hooked it up and got Netflix Streaming up and running, I actually spent some time poking around the library, which I hadn’t done before — I had only noticed if a movie in my queue was listed as being available for instant viewing. Sure enough, there was the Eccleston Who — so I started watching. When it was over, I watched the next one. When that one was over, I watched the next one. Next thing I knew, the Ninth Doctor was telling Rose, “You won’t see me again, not like this,” and I was crying. Still, David Tennant was a lot of fun, but then when he disappeared from the beach before he could tell Rose he loved her, I was crying again.

Meanwhile, Phil, my housemate for the year, turned me on to Veronica Mars, which was also available via streaming (no longer, it seems — alas). I watched all three seasons, and I enjoyed it — Twin Peaks meets Beverly Hills 90210 is sort of how it seemed to me, at least at first — but I consider myself one of those who felt that it lost its way during the second season and never quite recovered. Even the first season — the way it was set up, it was absolutely awesome, and even the way they solved the season’s central mystery was fantastic and completely unexpected, but in general the wrap-up didn’t quite seem to follow through on the all of the convictions the setup had started out with. Without totally giving things away, I’m not entirely certain they played fair with the audience in the first season resolution, and then the way they returned to the same material for second season’s mystery was not in the least convincing. Also, in general, in the first season I was able to buy that these were high school kids, even if many of them were high school kids of significant privilege; almost all of that credibility went out the window during the second season. The third season — well, you’ve got an early appearance of Armie Hammer, which was kind of cool, but beyond that, by the end I was having trouble caring. The point of all of this is to say, American episodic television was leaving me wanting more. I’m aware that Veronica Mars is hardly representative of “American TV”, but nonetheless, that’s how it fits into the story.

I got through the first four seasons of Who, and most of the first two seasons of Torchwood. For the record, I didn’t really quit watching Torchwood, I just sort of ran out of time. I will go back and watch the rest at some point. John Barrowman is amazingly talented, and strikes me as what Tom Cruise would be like if Tom Cruise were a good TV actor rather than A Movie Star (that said, go see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, it’s the best of the bunch and Brad Bird slams it out of the park). I watched all of the long specials that constituted Tennant’s putative “fourth season”, culminating in the heartbreaking “I don’t want to go!” — and suddenly there was this gangly kid onscreen yelling “Geronimo!”

Around this time, I decided to bite the Sherlock bullet. It wasn’t available on streaming, but the season pass on iTunes was something like $16, so… what the heck.

And, with that — season (I know, I know, “series”) five of Doctor Who and Sherlock — I was plunged into the depths of Steven Moffat’s pulsating pink glob of insanity jelly that he calls a brain.

Matt Smith quickly became my favorite of the three relaunched Doctors (and that after thinking there was no way that Tennant could possibly top Eccleston, and then thinking that Tennant had it as nailed as anybody could possibly nail it). Despite his youth, he played old surprisingly well, and in a way was the oldest-feeling of the bunch. The thing that in general grabs me about Doctor Who is that there are really no limits to the kinds of stories it can tell; science fiction, historical drama, comedy, horror, with any mixture of any number of those being possible. The Doctor himself, “the madman with a box”, has literally seen it all; Willy Wonka is a common comparandum to the Eleventh Doctor, but one I haven’t seen before that I think is apt is Neil Gaiman’s Morpheus — terribly old but still timeless, and still mortal in some way even if not quite. If any kind of a Sandman project ever does get off the ground, I’d love to see Matt Smith in the role — he looks like Morpheus (particularly in some of his Goth-boy publicity shots), and there were moments during the second half of the sixth season (particularly “Let’s Kill Hitler,” “The God Complex,” and “The Wedding of River Song”) where he captured a kind of despairing self-loathing that, to me at least, is key to the Dream King. (And let’s not forget the fairly blatant reference to the Doctor’s shadow self in “Amy’s Choice” as “The Dream Lord”.)

When my wife got back from Germany, I told her, okay, I’m now going to introduce you to my new favorite TV show. I started with “The Eleventh Hour” to see if she’d find it at all entertaining, and she did. Given what happens in the fifth season, I went back to “Blink”, “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead”, then proceeded with the rest of the fifth season and then the sixth season, so that this year’s Christmas special was the first one we watched “in sync”, as it were. She made the interesting observation, after watching “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” and Captain America: The First Avenger in reasonably quick succession, that each one represents a very different kind of cultural memory of World War II. For England, the memory is one of being bombed, forced out of your home, losing loved ones, being terrified in the dark — and for the United States, the memory is of being the good guys, plain and simple. Since we’re now working our way through the Eccleston series, I said, well, you’re going to get quite a bit more of that shortly (I’m thinking of “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances”, which, it occurs to me, are also the first Steven Moffat-scripted episodes).

So, then there’s Sherlock.

Since I’ve read “A Study in Scarlet” probably a half-dozen times, within the first minute or two of “A Study in Pink” I knew what they were setting up — the question was, does the person they’re going out of their way to not show or draw attention to have the same motivation as Jefferson Hope? Seemed unlikely that a teenage boy would fit in with the same kind of revenge scheme at the heart of “Scarlet”, so knowing the what without the why kept me watching.

I was not prepared for “Wrong!” “Wrong!” “Wrong!” “Wrong!”, much less “No, she was leaving an angry note in German! Of course we’re looking for a Rachel!” What I realized was that knowing the stories set up certain expectations in my head that allowed Moffat and co. to subvert them. Removing the setting of Victorian England, what becomes effectively a third major character in the stories, allows the series to focus on the stories and characters themselves rather than either selling the spectacle of a recreated period (like the Downey Jr./Law movies) or having to be somewhat deliberately stagy to avoid spending too much money on a recreation (like the Jeremy Brett series could be at times).

(I would nonetheless love to see a big-budget, faithful, period film of “A Study in Scarlet” someday. I have no doubt that it will never happen for all kinds of reasons that should be obvious to anybody halfway familiar with the middle portion of the novella — probably the backstory would have to be merged with that of “The Valley of Fear” or something like that, which itself seems like an apologetic rewrite of “Scarlet” anyway — but I hope that I might be wrong on that point.)

It was also fascinating to see the series creators work in other kinds of references. The end of “Pink” definitely recalls Vizzini vs. Westley in The Princess Bride, but it also sets it up with The Vanishing, one of the more terrifying — to me, at least — cinematic psychological traps of the last 30 years. (I’m talking about the Dutch original, by the way, not the remake with Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland.) “A Scandal in Belgravia” also cleverly works in a Fight Club homage as well as what I’m convinced is a subtle Star Trek II reference. “Hounds of Baskerville” includes a couple of Nolan-esque moments, one a riff of a moment in Insomnia, and conceptually it is indebted to Batman Begins as much as to Conan Doyle. These don’t strike me as derivative — if anything, they strike me as “Easter eggs” for a particular kind of viewer.

And then, of course, there are the performances. Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t impersonating anybody, he isn’t being reverent to Brett or Rathbone or Plummer or anybody else, he’s giving the audience a Holmes without the veneer of 19th century gentlemanly society, thus exposing him as a “high-functioning sociopath”. He’s every bit as good as Brett while being a completely different take on the character; I can’t wait to see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and I’m very curious to see what Hollywood makes of him, given the recent casting of him as the villain in the next Star Trek. Martin Freeman is a perfect foil, and the showrunners do a great job of giving Watson more to do than just chronicling and commenting on Holmes. Turning him into a hapless wannabe-ladies’ man is an interesting comment on how Watson’s love life works itself out in the Conan Doyle stories, and his everyman qualities make it plain why Peter Jackson thought he’d be the perfect Bilbo Baggins. Una Stubbs is a lot of fun as Mrs. Hudson, and her take on the character reminds me a bit of Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Lovett. And, I have to say, I don’t understand why some people have such a burr in their saddles over how Moriarty has been handled. I’ll be curious to see where it goes with “The Reichenbach Fall”, but in the 21st century I find it quite reasonable to think that a master criminal might be, at heart, a man-child on a power trip who wants to get back at everybody who laughed at him growing up.

There’s clearly a shared creative DNA between Sherlock and Doctor Who; obviously there’s Steven Moffat, but there’s also Mark Gatiss, Euros Lyn, and so on. Sherlock and the Eleventh Doctor have similar ways of processing information (compare “What did I see? I saw…” in “The Eleventh Hour” to the “Bond Air” bit in “A Scandal in Belgravia”), and there are some very interesting similarities between “The Hounds of Baskerville” and “The Unquiet Dead” (the third episode of the Eccleston Who), both Gatiss-scripted. I haven’t yet seen Tintin, but I’m very curious to see how Moffat’s work translates to the big screen.

And there you have it — I’m still not really an Anglophile, but I’m nonetheless one of the people who helped make Doctor Who the most purchased-from-iTunes TV series in 2011, and I’m doing my part to pass along the disease. I’ve shown the first fifteen minutes of “A Study in Pink” to about ten people thus far, and there hasn’t yet been an instance where I haven’t had my hand slapped away from the remote when I’ve said, “Okay, that’s the first fifteen minutes, I’m sure you’re not interested in seeing the rest…” Nor has there yet been an instance where I haven’t been bugged for the next 2-3 days about watching the other two episodes of the first season. “The Eleventh Hour” has also had a similar success rate.

I’ll also briefly note that a recent British TV movie called Page Eight was something I was persuaded to check out by virtue of the cast alone — Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Michael Gambon, Judy Davis, and Ralph Fiennes. (One wonders if all of the Harry Potter alumni get together to do these kinds of things for fun.) It’s an espionage thriller, and a very understated espionage to say the least, but that hardly makes it uninteresting. Bill Nighy  — whom I’m embarrassed to say I first heard of because a friend dragged me to the first Underworld back in 2003 — is such a restrained character that the tension is ratcheted up just by the viewer’s fear of what will happen when he finally lets loose. Does he? I ain’t sayin’. I’ll just say for now that I hope he gets to return to the role at some point, and that Page Eight is well worth checking out — you can find it on either iTunes or PBS’s website, I believe.

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Dutifully following up…

Thanks to a couple of friends kindly sharing yesterday’s post on Facebook — I suspect that the ulterior motive in doing so was the opportunity to publicly display goodwill to the deranged — I saw a number of comments on the piece that were not actually posted on the blog itself. I replied to a couple of them, but I also thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to address them here.

What I found very curious about some of the criticism is that what they were objecting to was also what I was objecting to, or at least I thought I was. I grant that I finally hit “Publish” at close to 3am and it’s possible that what seemed like a clear, cogent train of thought at the time was actually me calling for mandatory Batman tattoos on elephant trunks. I’m also enough of a postmodernist, at least in terms of absorption of cultural surroundings, to know that authorial intent is in no way authoritative, so if you think that I called for mandatory Batman tattoos on elephant trunks, I called for mandatory Batman tattoos on elephant trunks (even if the words I actually used were “I prefer rhubarb pie, but only with a nice strong cup of Ethiopian coffee and a rose liqueur chaser”).

One comment went as follows:

I think that that way lies madness on two counts:

1) The approach discussed, answering peoples’ ‘Felt Needs’, is exactly the approach that has led to the decline, and now fall of the historic Protestant denominations in the United States. Speaking from my personal background, the Dutch Reformed Church started saying to itself, “People don’t have a Predestination problem…” “People don’t have a Total Depravity problem…” “People aren’t wandering around feeling guilty about the sin in their lives…” and slowly but surely, all of those distinctions went down the sewer pipe and the Dutch Reformed denominations, with Robert Schuller leading the parade, left Protestantism, then Christianity, and blended into the American religion.

2) There’s an exceedingly false premise in the midst of this piece, and that’s that the Holy Orthodox Church isn’t the only one preaching Christ crucified in the United States today. I don’t know if its stated out of charity or ignorance of just how bad the religious landscape has become, but Orthodoxy is, frankly, the last vestige of Christianity available in the United States. Everything else has blended into the hydra that is Americanism, a kind of Nationalistic Therapeutic Deism. One head is Southern Baptist, one is Mormon, one Episcopalian, but at the core they’re teaching the same thing, a bland moralism, worship of patria, and whatever self help strategy is popular this week.

America is a threat unlike anything Orthodoxy has ever faced. We’re faced with a culture that believes itself to be Christian, but is anything but. A culture with no sense of history whatsoever, and which actively denies history’s relevance to religion. A culture whose religious experience is entirely subjective and individualistic. A culture that has fused this false religion with an overpowering Statism.

To my knowledge, the Orthodox Church was not seeking converts in Western European nations in the 19th century, nor in the fascist states of the early-20th century, and Communism of course left Orthodoxy in no state to seek growth until its fall in the lands afflicted. Those are the only places where She might have had a similar experience to attempting to convert the United States today.

The last thing I’m suggesting is that Orthodoxy blend into the American religion. However, I’m also trying to be realistic about the cultural circumstances that inform the problem, and I’m explicitly problematizing the approach of revising our visible, external practices as a way of making peace with those cultural circumstances. As far as the matter of whether or not Orthodox Christianity isn’t the only one preaching Christ crucified goes, my point is that, even if this commenter is right that Orthodoxy is the only one, we nonetheless are in the position of having to fight to be heard over the din of everybody else claiming to do so, and the ways we try to distinguish ourselves in the midst of that dull roar are received more often than not as exercises in question-begging, at least from what I’ve seen. Your mileage may vary.

Here’s a personal anecdote that seems applicable to me. When I was a little kid, I had a Sherlock Holmes-style double-billed deerstalker hat, a trenchcoat, and a briefcase. I insisted on wearing them to school every day. My parents told me, “You can wear those if you want. You need to be aware that you will probably take some heat for it because you’ll probably be the only kid at school wearing anything like it.” I chose to wear them nonetheless, completely unfazed. Yes, I had a lot of problems getting along with some of the other kids at school as a result, but I stuck to my guns.

From where I sit now, close to 30 years removed from that set of circumstances, I don’t think it was right or wrong that I made the choice that I did. It was just who I was (and still am, to a certain degree), and the way people reacted to me was a function of who they were. To be who I was without those externals was incomprehensible to me. But I still got beat up (and worse, sometimes) and my hat still got stolen on a regular basis (but always recovered — I still have it, in fact). I could have saved myself a lot of grief by just choosing to fit in, but I didn’t want to do that. What I did to adapt, rather, was to do the best I could at the things I was good at and that I was interested in, and eventually my path became clear. (Not until I was 29, and then I was 32 before I could actually go down that path, but never mind that now.)

I have a friend who just very recently started talking to me about the prospect of becoming a priest eventually. It’s coming to him out of a sense of vocation, not to evangelize the United States with the One True Church, but rather — and I can’t say I’ve ever heard any of my various would-be seminarian friends and acquaintances ever put it this way before — to heal people’s souls. Wow. When I think about how rife our culture is with depression, and how much effort we put into possible solutions for it, some that might work and others that assuredly won’t — well, talk about a problem people actually do think they have, and that we as the Church actually can do something about. Is that an impulse that leads to Nationalistic Therapeutic Deism? My instinct is to say no, that it’s rather an impulse to do what the Church should be doing anyway, but maybe I’m wrong.

Here’s another one:

Myeh — he’s right, but he’s wrong. His rhetoric is good, but he dismisses alternate claims on a kind of wistful idealism only then to transition into a realist “let’s meet real problems” mode to throw you off his trail. Not biting, thank you. What’s frustrating is that we _do_ need to translate some things, but it can’t be the result of one generation’s engineering project of “inculturation.”

We do need the Liturgy in English, we also really should have music that taps into some kind of cultural memory (there is such a thing, even if it’s weaker than it is in other cultures — and even, contra the choir director in this piece, if it seems “arbitrarily chosen” according to critical standards…these “arbitrary choices” are the result of decisions that the entire culture has received, that this kind of music captures something primordial about who we are, and it is probably made on a host of very difficult-to-pinpoint resonances between the form of the music and the forms of a bundle of things — the feel of the land, the forms of historical events that are received as defining, etc.).

On the other hand, the ascetical and liturgical tradition of the Church should not be tampered with. I don’t know why people would think that these should change. If there are little changes in iconographic style or vestments or whatever that would translate the tradition better in our land, then these will accumulate slowly over time from deepened fidelity to what is received, and will not result from a program.

Finally, Orthodox people say lots of really silly things about what the West is and what Secularism is. (They also say silly things about what Protestantism is, or what Catholicism is — even converts from these traditions.) This all really needs to be straightened out. In every pre-modern Pagan people that I know of, they had the Gospel translated into the symbolic idiom they knew — so that in the Anglo-Saxon world, for instance, they had the Pagan mythology subtly re-configured to communicate the form of the Gospel. There is continuity, and discontinuity, and I don’t know that there’s any other way to graft something on. Unless someone can articulate the American mythology, we’re not likely to have much success other than pockets of people who’re faithful to their heritage and peculiar converts who can buck all kinds of countervailing forces.

What is there to be wary of in American culture, in the condition of Secularism we all find ourselves in? The shadowboxing will likely continue until someone can speak clearly.

I’m not certain what alternate claims I’m dismissing with wistful idealism, and it’s also unclear to me what he means by saying I’m trying to throw people off my trail. Dealing with the rest of it — I never said we don’t need the Liturgy in English; I said that English is important. What I suggested, perhaps clumsily in my 2:30am stupor, is something that seems to me to be well in line with what he says — that English isn’t functioning as part of a mission so much as part of a cultural agenda. The agenda is looking an awful lot like the tail wagging the dog, and it isn’t addressing what strike me, at least in my own limited experience, as the real pastoral issues that have to do with language and culture.

Unless someone can articulate the American mythology… well, somebody did that. His name was Joseph Smith. The particular genius of Mormonism, it seems to me, was figuring out a way to incorporate an American sense of place into its sacred history in a way that no Protestant group has really managed to do, and that Catholicism and Orthodoxy really struggle to figure out how to do. The way most Protestants seem to have solved this problem is to become semi-gnostic (at least) in their approach to place. I had a conversation with somebody about a year ago, basically a garden-variety Evangelical, about my experience in Greece and being someplace where particular events in Christian history are embedded in the cultural memory. This person looked very thoughtful and said, “Well, that’s interesting, but why does anybody actually need that? I don’t have a sense of place that has resonance with Christian history, but I’ve got Jesus, and I don’t see where I’m missing anything.” (Which again smacks of solutions looking for problems.) I’ve suggested before that the way American Orthodoxy will develop its own sense of place will be American saints who actually were born here and active here, but that’s not going to happen overnight.

(Incidentally, Flesh of My Flesh does medieval Germanic stuff, and I’m well aware of the Gospel being translated into the symbolic idiom that they knew — still, there are limitations there. The Germanic tribes stayed Arian for a long time, for example, and my wife has also talked about there being some very strange things going on with things like the Heliand, the Gospel harmonization written in Old Saxon.)

What is there to be wary of in American culture? That’s a question that I’m sure could take multiple dissertations to answer, but here’s where my brain immediately goes: I met a man once who was a mortgage broker. It wasn’t terribly exciting, but he was very good at it, and he was proud of what he did. “If you’re going to make shoes, make good shoes,” he said. It was a point of view that got me thinking, and I remember mentioning it to my dad, who promptly shot down the man’s attitude as naive and, mortal sin of mortal sins, inefficient. “If you make good shoes that nobody can buy, you’re not going to have a job,” he retorted. “Better to make shoes that are just good enough that the average person can afford them and feel like they’re getting a halfway decent product. Sell to the classes, eat with the masses. Sell to the masses, eat with the classes.” It seems to me that that’s a good place to start.

Χριστὸς γεννᾶται, δοξάσατε!

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

Christmas Eve found me singing the services of the Royal Hours of the Nativity, as well as the Vesperal Liturgy of St. Basil, in the morning. We only started doing the Liturgy in the last couple of years, and last year I had to leave right after the Hours, so this marks the first time I’ve sung this particular service.

The idea of the Royal Hours of the Nativity is one of my favorite services; it is, so far as I can tell, a Christmas service that is entirely ours and for which no other communion has an equivalent. I’ve always thought of it as a service that, in theory, could be a wonderful outreach if done really beautifully (of course, the same could be said of all of our services). Also the parallel of the hymn from Ninth Hour, “Today is born of the Virgin Him who holdest all creation in the hollow of His hand,” to the Fifteenth Antiphon from the Matins of Holy Friday, “Today is suspended upon the tree He who suspended the earth upon the waters,” is also one of those liturgical moments that reveals how carefully our ecclesiastical year is constructed.

The execution of the Royal Hours tends to stress me out, however. The last couple of years in particular have always had little gotchas (or big gotchas, as sometimes is the case) — two years ago, for example, my priest forwarded me an e-mail from our bishop saying, “This is how we’re going to do the Royal Hours throughout the entire diocese this year; please make a note of it.” I dutifully prepared to do the service exactly that way, I made a verbal attempt to verify Fr. Peter and I were on the same page before the service, and I reached the end of the Royal Hours as outlined by the bishop only to have the priest continuing on with exactly the portion of the service I had not brought with me for the morning. He asked me afterwards what happened; I told him I was following the bishop’s e-mail that he had forwarded me. Without going into messy details, we’ll just say that the decision had been made to not change anything in consideration of it being Fr. Peter’s first year at the parish, and that this not being conveyed to me was, one way or the other, an oversight. Last year, the Vesperal Liturgy was added to the schedule immediately following the Hours; unfortunately, for whatever reason the Liturgy was scheduled for an hour following the Hours, and the Hours take somewhere close to two hours if sung as written. We sped through as much as we possibly could, cutting repeats, and it was still about an hour and forty-five minutes. This incident was unfortunately forgotten, and the same mistake was made on this year’s calendar. The solution this time was to sing the troparion and kontakion at each hour, then read rather than sing the stichera leading up to the prokeimenon. This got us down to an hour and a half. Then there’s the matter of our Kazan Menaion for December being in horrible disarray with a lot of things having been lost or removed over the years. I will replace that, with my own money if need be, shortly (assuming they still exist). Hopefully, one way or the other, all of these issues can be addressed for next year.

Following the services for the morning, there was much goose-preparing, present-wrapping, cleaning and decorating to do before we returned to church for a chrismation, Nativity Matins, and Divine Liturgy at 8:30pm.

Goose, as it turns out, is on the expensive side. Being married to me has evidently done horrible things to Megan’s math, and/or her approach to thinking about food, and when she was asked how many people she was feeding when she ordered the goose, she added one plus one (her and me), and came up with the number seven. The resulting ten pound goose was, as you can see, not cheap. Ah well — if it had turned out terribly, it would have been a tragedy. As it is, we’re just fine with a few days’ worth of leftovers.

I mentioned earlier the matter of brining the goose. This involved cleaning the bird and soaking it overnight in five gallons of water with lots of salt, sugar, peppercorns, bay leaves, cardamom, and so on. The exact recipe may be found here. It was not terribly difficult, but all the ready-making was time-consuming, and I found myself wrapping Megan’s presents just minutes before we had to head back to church.

Matins and Liturgy were a good deal less stressful than the morning’s services, and set the Feast off well, I thought. Christmas is always a strange-feeling time at All Saints; college town that Bloomington is, a lot of people are gone, and even some people who are in town often stay home. To some extent, this underscores for me how Easter really is the main holy day on our calendar, and as much as the Nativity is a major feast, it just still isn’t as big of deal. Nonetheless, the Nativity Liturgy is the best-attended non-Sunday major feast at All Saints, even if it doesn’t pack the house the way Pascha does. We did have the nine-member family of a catechumen — which included a Pentecostal preacher. I was asked, seconds before we were about to start Matins, if there was anything with which he could follow along — having to think quickly, I handed the requestor an extra copy of both the Nassar book of liturgical texts (aka “the Five Pounder”) and the Antiochian service book. I still have no idea if that wound up being useful.

Another part of why it’s strange, though, is that there is nothing in the Byzantine celebration of the Nativity that corresponds to what is done at the popular level in American society. We sing totally different hymns, we don’t do a “living Christmas tree,” and incense, candles and whatnot are normative parts of every service for us, not just for high holy days. All Saints has sung Christmas carols in the church following the dismissal, but in the last 2-3 years that’s fallen out of practice because we’ve started reading the post-Communion prayers at that point, so there’s not really a logistically clean point anymore where that might work. For my own part, I can say that the last thing in the world I want to do after singing Nativity Matins and Divine Liturgy is to start singing Christmas carols, for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which being that I’m vocally exhausted, and also that aesthetically it seems like it would be the most jarring transition possible. Still, I know it’s difficult for some people, that to some extent it doesn’t feel like the same Christmas everybody else is celebrating. I’m not sure what the solution is, if there even really is one.

A nightcap of eggnog with bourbon found me before we hit the sack, and then that was that for the night.

I think we finally rolled out of bed around 10:30am on Christmas morning. We opened presents — some festal icons for us, a couple of reference works Megan wanted, and then for me home coffee roasting supplies — and then what I was really waiting for: eggs benedict from scratch, with biscuits made from the buttermilk that Megan’s butter-making efforts from a couple of days before had yielded.

Then it was time to start roasting a goose.

Roasting a goose is less tricky than some might have you believe, but the incontrovertible truth is that there is a lot of fat. You have to prick a lot of holes in the skin so that the fat can drain out while the bird is cooking, and then you have to be immensely careful when pulling it in and out of the oven lest all of the drippings splash over the side of the roasting pan. The plus of this is that goose fat is supposed to make fantastic mashed potatoes.

We followed this recipe and liked it a lot; the one caveat I might mention is that the way the steps are organized, it is not made clear that the stock is a vital ingredient of the gravy until it is too late to go back and rectify the matter if you skipped over it. We were able to improvise so that all was not lost, and the stock made a really tasty soup a couple of days later, but do be aware of this. Also, the recipe assumes a thirteen pound bird; ours was a ten-pounder, and by the time we got to the last 50 minutes of roasting as called for in the recipe, our meat thermometer told us that it was already done. Next time we will attempt to recalibrate the cooking times to match up with the goose’s size.

Anyway, one way or the other, the fowl was not foul in the least. My impression of how goose tastes is that it’s similar to roast beef as well as good dark meat on a turkey. We also had mashed potatoes, collard greens, and spinach, served with a very nice Lebanese red wine. Dessert was homemade pound cake.

I also decided I was in the mood to read the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” aloud and in character; my reading of this story when I was seven or eight, after all, is the whole reason I ever had any idea there was such a thing as a Christmas goose in the first place, so it seemed appropriate. It was fun; we’ll see if this particular practice lasts.

Friday, Saturday, and Sunday have, of course, seen us feeding a lot of people with goose leftovers. You can do all the same things with it as turkey; sandwiches, soup, and so on. As well as that’s gone over, maybe it was a good thing that Megan’s math was faulty — I look forward to doing it again.

All Saints served the Divine Liturgy of St. James again yesterday, the Sunday after Nativity being the other day when it is customary (at least in some places) to celebrate it; I hope to be able to post pictures soon. It really is a beautiful Liturgy, I’m finding it very enriching to become more familiar with it, and far more people in the parish got to be part of it than did in October. I’m only sad that it’s going to be almost ten months before the next time we do it.

And a new year is almost upon us. Thank God for that, for so many reasons.


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