Tuesday, December 25, 2007


I met the cutest little boy in church on Sunday. He was all dimples, gummy smiles and inquisitive eyes. He must have been about a year old or so - he was just learning to walk. He would take a few awkward steps before sitting back down on the floor - looking at his father, babbling meaningfully, waiting to be picked up and put back on his feet again. Looking at him I found it hard to imagine that God himself, the creator of heaven and earth, the author of the universe, was once a tiny, helpless little boy who could barely walk or talk.

And yet therein lies the miraculous beauty of the Christmas message. God did not enter human history with a blast of trumpet sound and an army of angels. He came as a tiny baby boy. And even then, he was not born into a powerful, royal household. He was born to a carpenter and a young Jewish girl, born under the rule of a tyrant who wanted to kill him, into a world that had no room for him, save in a lowly manger.

Yet in that manger, in that apparent servility, was the greatest majesty. In that apparent weakness was the greatest strength. In that apparent obscurity was the most history-changing event of all – the birth and life of Jesus Christ. In that manger, in that dirty feed-trough, absolute glory was at work. The infinitely high had condescended to become inconceivably low. The infinitely immense had become astoundingly small. But to what end?
(Tim Keller in Grace and Glory and Nazareth?!)

As C. S. Lewis says in Miracles, "In the Christian story God descends to reascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still, if embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life; down to the very roots and seabed of Nature He has created. But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him."

...an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel" — which means, "God with us." Matt 1:20-23

Blessed Christmas everyone.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Jazzy Christmas

I watched this annual jazz concert last night (now in its fifth year) and I was completely blown away by the virtuosity and the sheer brilliance of the performers: Singaporean pianist/keyboardist Jeremy Monteiro, Malaysian guitarist/singer Paul Ponnudurai, and American husband and wife duo, Tuck and Patti (Tuck on guitar and Patti on vocals).

I was stunned with Patti started to sing - the sheer depth and richness of her voice filled the hall, as if we were all swimming in a warm, molten, chocolate sea. She sounds great on the CDs but she is completely amazing live. This is probably the closest I'll ever get to hearing Ella Fitzgerald live, I thought to myself. I was absolutely thrilled when they played Time After Time. (Both Tuck & Patti and Eva Cassidy have vastly improved upon this Cyndi Lauper original - I love both versions.)

But the real revelation was Paul Ponnudurai. I think we all had the collective reaction "I can't believe he's been playing at the Esplanade Harry's Bar all this while and I never knew about him". TODAY newspaper ran a particularly flattering write-up of him in its recent weekend edition.

Listening to his version of "Joshua fought the battle of Jericho" - "This is a song that I learnt at Sunday School" he had said by way of introduction - it was not hard to see why the May 2007 issue of TIME magazine called him "quite possibly the greatest musical interpreter of our time". He completely turned the tune from a happy-clappy kids' song into a soulful, gut-wrenching, blues number. Which Sunday school did he go to??? Because I'm pretty sure that I learnt a different song. And hearing his voice soar effortlessly as he sang Silent Night...

Silent night, holy night
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord at Thy birth
Jesus, Lord at Thy birth

I heard these words as I have never heard them before.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Brideshead Revisited: A twitch upon the thread

I've just finished reading Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. It's been some time since I've read a good, no, great, novel - witty, urbane and profoundly moving all at once - mired as I am, in the more functional and prosaic prose of current affairs reporting. Even though I got through the novel in fits and starts, it is probably a testimony to Waugh's brilliance that every time I picked it up again to continue from where I had left off, I was immediately wrapped up in the poetic beauty of his words and transported to a different place, a different time. And yet, despite the rarefied air of the world that his characters inhabit, much of what they struggle with is universal.

The book is about one Charles Ryder's infatuation with the Marchmains, an eccentric (often comical), aristocratic, Catholic family, and the "rapidly disappearing world of privilege they inhabit" (so says the blurb at the back of the Penguin edition of the book). Charles Ryder first falls in with the enchanting Sebastian when they are at Oxford. This episode opens with one of the loveliest descriptions of Oxford I have ever come across.

Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint. In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman's day; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days - such as that day - when the chestnut over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth. It was this cloistral hush which gave our laughter its resonance...

Through his friendship with Sebastian, Charles is introduced to his "madly charming" family and years later is swept up in an adulterous affair with Sebastian's ethereally beautiful sister, Julia.

Here, after having been together with Julia for two years, Charles recalls a conversation that he and Julia once had.

'It's frightening,' Julia once said, 'to think how completely you've forgotten Sebastian.'
'He was the forerunner.'
'That's what you said in the storm. I've thought since, perhaps I am only a forerunner, too.'
'Perhaps,' I thought, while her words still hung in the air between us like a wisp of tobacco smoke - a thought to fade and vanish like smoke without a trace - 'perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; vagabond-language scrawled on gate-posts and paving stones along the weary road that others have tramped before us; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.'

Earlier in the book, Charles declares that "to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom." But by the end of the book the imperfection and insufficiency of love between two flawed human beings becomes tragically clear. And yet, all is not lost. The book ends redemptively, with the Marchmain family returning to their spiritual roots and Charles back at his beloved Brideshead Castle during the second world war, now a Captain in the army, saying a prayer - "an ancient, newly-learned form of words" - in the chapel, finally finding what he had always been searching for, even as he is found.

In the 1959 preface, Waugh writes that the theme of this book is "the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters". In the middle of the book, just after their mother has passed away, Cordelia (Sebastian and Julia's younger sister) tells Charles:

'Anyhow, the family haven't been very constant [in their faith], have they? There's [Papa] gone and Sebastian gone and Julia gone. But God won't let them go for long, you know. I wonder if you remember the story mummy read us the evening Sebastian first got drunk - I mean the bad evening. "Father Brown" said something like "I caught him" (the thief) "with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread."'