Tuesday, December 24, 2013

#376, in which God is not dead, nor doth He sleep

#1 "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" (music: John Baptiste Calkin, lyrics: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, based on Luke 2:14)

You might be wondering why I would choose this hymn as the top of the fourteen considering it mentions neither Jesus nor His birth. There are no shepherds, no angels, no Joseph, Mary, or wise men. You could argue that the only reason this is a Christmas hymn at all is because the narrator happened to hear the bells on Christmas day. It could just as easily be "I Heard the Bells on Easter Day," couldn't it?

And yet when I made my list, this was the easy #1 in my mind, challenged only briefly by "Silent Night." This one's my very favorite. The lyrics are beautiful and share a powerful sentiment. The tune is wonderful and has been in my head since I came up with the idea for these posts (which was, incidentally, while I was singing this very hymn). And while I don't like to focus on this as much, the backstory to the lyrics is powerful, too.

Longfellow's son enlisted enlisted in the Union army during the Civil War against his wishes. He was severely wounded only a few months later in November. At nearly the same time, Longfellow's wife perished in a fire. In his grief, he wrote the poem "Christmas Bells," which was set to music and became this hymn.

It's a hymn of sadness, despair, and grieving. It's a hymn about a crisis of faith. Longfellow writes that he has long heard the "unbroken song of peace on earth, goodwill to men," but now questions whether or not it is still true. He saw war, destruction, and agony all around him. Was God still there? How could He be if He allowed his son to be wounded fighting for what he thought was right? And how could He allow his wife to be taken in an accidental fire?

And in despair I bowed my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."

The image of hate mocking the notion of peace on earth is a painful one. It's one thing to oppose peace, but another altogether to mock and demean it once it has been defeated. Longfellow must have felt that fate was being cruelly spiteful in taking both his wife and son from him. And surely, he must have felt that it was not fate, but God himself mocking him. His wife's death was an accident, yes, but one in which she was doing something entirely innocent. She was saving locks of her children's hair in an envelope and sealing them with wax, and somehow her dress caught fire, fatally burning her. To add insult to injury, Longfellow too was burnt, severely enough that he could not attend the funeral.

We all go through similar crises of faith in our lives, though perhaps not as dramatic. We wonder if God is really there, and if He knows our pain. We wonder why there is so much evil in the world and why He does not intervene. We may even wonder if, rather than loving us, He takes pleasure in our suffering, since we endure so much of it. We go through dark times, we hurt, we ache, and we doubt.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men."

Through the darkness, a beam of light comes through. God lives, He loves us, and He hears us despite our pains and suffering. His hand is active, even if we can't always see it. He is always there. The bells never stopped ringing; it was we who stopped hearing them. The angels' song has never ceased. We stop, we listen, and we once again tune our ears to the ringing of the bells. The world revolves from night to day, and we regain our trust in our Father, who sent His Son to give us reason to listen to the bells at all. 

It's a Christmas message after all, even if the nativity isn't mentioned. The Savior lives that we might not die. In time, war, anger, and hatred will fade away, leaving only a voice, a chime, a chant sublime of peace on earth, good will to men.

Merry Christmas, friends.

Previously in this series

#2 Silent Night
#3 The First Noel
#4 Away in a Manger
#5 Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
#6 Oh Come, All Ye Faithful
#7 Far, Far Away on Judea's Plains
#8 Once in Royal David's City
#9 Angels We Have Heard on High
#10 It Came upon the Midnight Clear
#11 O Little Town of Bethlehem
#12 With Wondering Awe
#13 Joy to the World
#14 While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

Monday, December 23, 2013

#375, in which love's pure light radiant beams from thy holy face

#2 "Silent Night" (tune: Franz Gruber, text: Joseph Mohr, based on Luke 2:7-14)

I had a tough time deciding which of the two remaining hymns should be #1 and which should be #2. "Silent Night" is, to me, the holiest of the fourteen hymns. Some of the other hymns leave me a feeling of reverence, but only this one makes me feel as though I'm on sacred ground. There's something about the slow, gentle melody that gives me goosebumps to hear it. 

It seems to be a universal feeling, too. "Silent Night" is the only one of our fourteen that has been declared a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. On Christmas Eve during World War I, British, French, and German soldiers came out of their foxholes and trenches and sang this song together, each in their own language. That's partially because this was the hymn that everyone knew, but I like to think that even if each of them knew all fourteen, this was the hymn they would have chosen.

And why would they have chosen this one? Simply put, the theme of the hymn is peace. The word itself only appears twice ("sleep in heavenly peace"), but peace echoes in every verse. The night is silent and holy, the mother and child are tender and mild, and the love of the newborn is pure. Many of the hymns we've heard about earlier highlight the joy that came at this night, and there's joy here, but it's quiet and restrained. We feel love more than celebration.

It's the love we sing about in the third verse that touches me most about this hymn. The child is described as, well, listen:

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 had never held a newborn in my arms until my daughter was born. She was good, and she was pure, but I don't know that I could have described her as beaming love's pure light. She was indifferent, she was upset, she was tired, but beatific she was not. Not so with the infant Jesus. I don't know that this is strict doctrine, but He is described as being perfectly calm and exuding the pure love of God. Even in that tiny manger, the magnitude of who He was and His mission here on earth was clear. The animals knew, Mary and Joseph knew, and the shepherds no doubt knew once they arrived on the scene.

Not only could they feel His pure love, but they knew that His birth marked the dawn of redeeming grace. They may not have known that from just seeing the baby, but the angels surely sang it to them. We've sung about this earlier: through Him, God and sinners are reconciled. Mankind was fallen, and His birth was the beginning of a new age in which we could return from that state into something purer.

I think what's most touching about this is the intimacy we feel. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are there, and the shepherds may be there, but that's all. It's quite possibly the single most important event in human history thus far, and only a handful of people are there to witness it and feel the outpouring of love from the Father and His Son. And when we sing this hymn, we get to listen in, even if just for a moment. We get to feel love's pure light. It almost feels like I'm intruding on something private when I hear the hymn, but then, I imagine that someone so possessed of that holy love would be happy to welcome me in.

Christ, the Savior, is born.

Previously in this series

#3 The First Noel
#4 Away in a Manger
#5 Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
#6 Oh Come, All Ye Faithful
#7 Far, Far Away on Judea's Plains
#8 Once in Royal David's City
#9 Angels We Have Heard on High
#10 It Came upon the Midnight Clear
#11 O Little Town of Bethlehem
#12 With Wondering Awe
#13 Joy to the World
#14 While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

Sunday, December 22, 2013

#374, in which they looked up and saw a star

#3 "The First Noel" (music and lyrics: traditional 17th c. English carol, based on Luke 2:8-20)

For a long time, this was my very favorite of the fourteen. My placing it at number three is less an indictment of the song and more of a mark of how much I've grown to love the top two. The melody is absolutely beautiful to me, rising and falling gently as the refrains of noel, noel float over everything. I'm not sure what it is about the tune, but it even feels a little cold to me. I can picture myself rubbing my hands together, blowing in them, and stamping my feet to keep warm in a field with my sheep.

There's no scriptural evidence that I'm aware of that the birth of the Savior took place in winter (I suppose you could figure it out if you knew when all the world was taxed by Augustus), but it's inarguable that no matter the time of year, the shepherds could have looked up that night and seen a star. The account in Luke doesn't actually mention the star, but I picture the shepherds seeing the star before the angels. They looked up into the night sky and saw something unmistakable. I don't think the shepherds were intimately familiar with the stars. They probably didn't need to use them for navigation, so they may not have known the constellations, but they wouldn't have needed to in order to see the star of Bethlehem. The sign wasn't given so that you could only see it if you knew just when and where to look. It was given to announce the birth of the King of Israel to the whole world, and to the earth it gave great light.

To all the earth, no less. We've talked about them before, but there were those in the Americas looking to the birth of their Savior, too. When He was born, there was no darkness that night as a sign to them, and after that day and a night and a day, a new star appeared in the sky. I couldn't say whether or not it was the same star, or whether or not it was a star at all or a supernova or a nebula or what, but I can say that it was the same God who provided the sign. He tells us so himself. Listen:

Lift up your head and be of good cheer; for behold, the time is at hand, and on this night shall the sign be given, and on the morrow come I into the world, to show unto the world that I will fulfil all that which I have caused to be spoken by the mouth of my holy prophets. 
Behold, I come unto my own, to fulfil all things which I have made known unto the children of men from the foundation of the world, and to do the will, both of the Father and of the Son—of the Father because of me, and of the Son because of my flesh. And behold, the time is at hand, and this night shall the sign be given. (3 Nephi 1:13-14)
He promised, and He delivered. That night was the sign given. He came to His own, whether it be shepherds, wise men, a humble virgin mother, or even the animals in the stable. So too can we look up, see the star, and be of good cheer. He comes to His own.

Previously in this series

#4 Away in a Manger
#5 Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
#6 Oh Come, All Ye Faithful
#7 Far, Far Away in Judea's Plains
#8 Once in Royal David's City
#9 Angels We Have Heard on High
#10 It Came upon the Midnight Clear
#11 O Little Town of Bethlehem
#12 With Wondering Awe
#13 Joy to the World
#14 While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

Saturday, December 21, 2013

#373, in which i love thee, lord Jesus

#4 "Away in a Manger" (music: William J. Kirkpatrick, text anonymous, based on Luke 2:7)

When I set out to write about these fourteen hymns, I did it mostly to give me a reason to write about the top three, each of which I'm very excited for. When I drew up the list, there was a clear divide for me between the top three hymns and the remaining eleven. The more I thought about them, though, the more I realized that this hymn wasn't so far off from the others. In fact, the more I listen to it, the more I realize that it's really terrific.

Let's start with the obvious aspect that sets this hymn apart from the other thirteen: it's a lullaby. (Yes, "Silent Night" is also a lullaby, but I don't think it's nearly as salient a feature of the hymn as it is with this one.) It's in three, it has simple tonal harmonies, and the lyrics encourage the hearer to be calm and go to sleep. It's the sort of song I could picture being played on a Fisher-Price record player. I tried to find either a recording of the song on such a record player or a way that I could create my own, but I couldn't find anything, so you'll have to imagine it, I'm afraid.

So who are we singing the lullaby to? We're singing it to baby Jesus Himself. We spend the first verse singing about Him, but the second and third transition to addressing Him directly. You know the first verse; listen now to the second:

The cattle are lowing; the poor baby wakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.
I love thee, Lord Jesus; look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.

There's an interesting transition from addressing the baby in the cradle to a resident of heaven, and in fact, when we make that switch, it's fair to say that we're reversing roles. Where once we sang to a tiny baby as gentle parents, we now approach our gentle Lord as relative infants ourselves. Infants go through a wild variety of emotions and don't know why they feel what they do. We may find ourselves in the same situation, and here we turn to the Lord and ask Him to "stay close by me forever, and love me." If babies could talk, I imagine they might say something similar.

I have a baby daughter of my own, which colors my experience hearing this hymn. When she's crying and doesn't know why, sometimes I pick her up and hold her close. I'll rock back and forth, I'll try to make soothing sounds, and I'll tell her what a sweet baby she is. I tell her that I love her, and I do. It comforts both of us. 

So when I hear the words, "I love thee, Lord Jesus," I can picture myself holding the tiny King in my arms, being overcome with the majesty of who it is I'm holding, but also with my love for Him who made it possible for God and sinners to be reconciled. And when I sing "and stay by my cradle till morning is nigh," I can picture myself being held close. I can picture being told that I am loved, and that He is near.

The lullaby is for the baby, but it's also for "all the dear children in [His] tender care." We sing it to Him, and He sings it to us. We comfort Him, and He comforts us. We love Him, and He loves us.

Previously in this series

#5 Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
#6 Oh Come, All Ye Faithful
#7 Far, Far Away on Judea's Plains
#8 Once in Royal David's City
#9 Angels We Have Heard on High
#10 It Came upon the Midnight Clear
#11 O Little Town of Bethlehem
#12 With Wondering Awe
#13 Joy to the World
#14 While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

Friday, December 20, 2013

#372, in which God and sinners are reconciled

#5 "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" (music: Felix Mendelssohn, lyrics: Charles Wesley, based on Luke 2:8-14)

Every word in this song, with the exception of the first line, is a word that we're to understand as being sung by an angel, and maybe not even all of the first line. It could either be "'Hark!' the herald angels sing," or "Hark! The herald angels sing:" The title of the hymn capitalizes "the," suggesting the second reading, in which a third-person narrator tells us to listen to the herald angels; the lyrics themselves don't capitalize "the," suggesting the first reading, in which the angels themselves ask us to listen. I'm not sure it really matters who is saying "hark," but in either case, we're asked to pay attention to what the angels have to say to us.

Most of what they sing are the sorts of praises and shouts of glory we've read about before, but before long, we're treated to a fantastic description of why it's so marvelous that Jesus was born. Right out of the gate, we get the line that I chose for the title of this post: Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled. He came to bring peace, and He came to reunite us with the Father we estranged ourselves from through sin. That's not to say that He drags us back to our Father's presence, but He does reintroduce us and give us the chance to make amends.

And how does he do it? The second verse gives us some clues. He reconciles us not by changing the mind of God or the rules of the heavenly game, but by softening our hearts. Life and light to all He brings, risen with healing in His wings. He changes our desire, which lets us change the direction we're traveling from away from heaven to toward it. And He does it as an example of humility to us, despite the magnitude of the sacrifice. Listen:

Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

He was born that we may be reborn. He died that we may live. And as we learned earlier, the angels sing His song just as they always have. It floats over all the weary world, and all we have to do is bend an ear to hear them sing.


Previously in this series

#6 Oh Come, All Ye Faithful
#7 Far, Far Away on Judea's Plains
#8 Once in Royal David's City
#9 Angels We Have Heard on High
#10 It Came upon the Midnight Clear
#11 O Little Town of Bethlehem
#12 With Wondering Awe
#13 Joy to the World
#14 While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

Thursday, December 19, 2013

#371, in which, Lord, we greet thee

#6 "Oh, Come All Ye Faithful" (music and lyrics: attributed to John F. Wade, trans. Frederick Oakley, based on Luke 2:8-20)

Although the English translation is enduring in the western world, the original Latin is nearly equally well-known. I'm no expert on Latin, but I've studied Romance languages enough to know that Oakley's translation is pretty close to the source text, although I have one minor quibble, which I'll come back to. We are directed to sing majestically, and I think the Latin lyrics provide a certain sense of majesty that is missing from the English. Judge for yourself:

Here's what they're singing:

Adeste fideles, laeti triumphantes
Venite, venite in Bethlehem.
Natum venite
Regem angelorum;
Venite adoremus,
Venite adoremus,
Venite adoremus Dominum.

The hymn celebrates the arrival of the infant Jesus, but emphasizes his coming not as an infant, but as a King ("born the King of angels," as it says). And in reverence to the king, we sing His praise. We join with the choirs of angels, we sing in exultation, all of us citizens of heaven above.

The Latin makes a reference to His role as ruler that is lost in our English hymnals, though, and I want to point it out here. The third verse, in one of my favorite melodic passages in sacred verse, has us sing, "Son of the Father, now in flesh appearing." And yet the Latin reads, "Patris aeterni, Verbum caro factum." You don't have to hold a doctorate in Latin to recognize the word verbum instead of filium. In Latin, we sing of the coming of the Word of the Father, not His Son, and while scripture tells us that one is the other, the emphasis on one role over the other is no accident. In Latin, we offer praises to our ruler and king.

And yet, His more approachable role as Son feels more in keeping with the preceding lines, "Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning." We've been waiting for His coming, and now that He has come, we greet Him not as a ruler to be feared, but as a friend to be welcomed with open arms. His coming is met with reverence and majesty, yes, but since we, too, are sons and daughters of the Father, we rejoice to see the arrival of our Brother. He is come, and He is good, and surely that makes it a happy morning. Incidentally, this is the only hymn that refers to the time of day as "morning" rather than "night." I won't pretend to know what time of day the Savior was born, nor will I suggest that the contradiction implies some sort of doctrinal failing, but I might suggest that the morning is symbolic of the dawning of a new age in which God and sinners are reconciled.

But that, of course, is a story for another hymn.

Previously in this series

#7 Far, Far Away on Judea's Plains
#8 Once in Royal David's City
#9 Angels We Have Heard on High
#10 It Came upon the Midnight Clear
#11 O Little Town of Bethlehem
#12 With Wondering Awe
#13 Joy to the World
#14 While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

#370, in which with the angels we too would rejoice

#7 "Far, Far Away on Judea's Plains" (music and lyrics: John Menzies Macfarlane, based on Luke 2:8-20)

This is the only hymn of the fourteen in which the chorus is longer than the verses themselves; the familiar refrain of "glory to God in the highest" is four lines compared to the two allotted for each verse. That makes it an easy hymn to sing if you aren't familiar with the lyrics, since you can just wait for the chorus to come back around, but for someone like me looking for nuggets to uncover in the lyrics, that makes it a little challenging.

And yet, the extra-long chorus is so long for a reason. Each verse ends with a colon. The chorus represents the song of the angels in the first two verses, and in the final two, it represents the song of our own hearts. The song is one and the same:

Glory to God, Glory to God,
Glory to God in the highest;
Peace on earth, goodwill to men;
Peace on earth, goodwill to men!

It's the same message we've heard from each of these hymns, although I'd draw your attention to the exclamation point at the end. While most of these hymns have been quiet and reverent in tone, this one encourages loud rejoicing. The hymnbook recommends that we sing "joyfully," which is hardly surprising; the word "joy" appears twice ("joyous" and "rejoice") in those short verses. We've shown our reverence and respect for the newborn King; in this hymn, we get to celebrate.

There's one other unique word in this hymn, though, that I particularly want to emphasize to you. Of the fourteen Christmas hymns, this is the only one that uses the word "help." In fact, none of the other hymns includes any sort of request for aid, though "Away in a Manger" comes closest ("I ask thee to stay"). Here's where it appears in verse three:

Lord, with the angels we too would rejoice
Help us to sing with the heart and voice.

We hear the songs and shouts. We hear the joy from the angels. And we want to join in, only maybe our voice can't communicate that feeling as well as they can. Maybe our hearts aren't as softened and pure as their are. We give it our all, but somehow, it's just not quite enough. And so we ask the Lord, the Lord who is paradoxically in the very cradle we're singing about, to help make our hearts as the angels' so we can sing like them.

The reason we sing this chorus at all is because He can heal our hearts to be able to sing with the heart and voice, and He does. We turn to Him with that desire, and He makes it possible. And as our hearts unite with the angels', we sing that fourth verse, waiting for others to join with us:

Hasten the time when, from ev'ry clime,
Men shall unite in the strains sublime:

Glory to God, Glory to God,
Glory to God in the highest;
Peace on earth, goodwill to men;
Peace on earth, goodwill to men!

Previously in this series

#8 Once in Royal David's City
#9 Angels We Have Heard on High
#10 It Came upon the Midnight Clear
#11 O Little Town of Bethlehem
#12 With Wondering Awe
#13 Joy to the World
#14 While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

#369, in which our eyes at last shall see him

#8 "Once in Royal David's City" (music: Henry J. Gauntlett, lyrics: Cecil Francis Alexander, based on Luke 2:4-7, 11-12)

Lyricist Cecil Francis Alexander, despite having three male names, was an Irish woman who wrote the lyrics to this hymn as a poem, publishing it (along with other entries in the LDS hymnbook such as "There Is a Green Hill Far Away") in a collection titled Hymns for Little Children. It was set to music a year later.

Knowing that the lyrics were intended for children sheds new light on the hymn. The words are simple; the most complicated of them might be "lowly" and "redeeming," neither of which are especially difficult. ("Manger" is probably harder than either of those, but it's used so frequently in connection with Christmas that it hardly counts here.) The story told is simple, too. Listen to the first verse:

Once in royal David's city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her baby
In a manger for his bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child.

I like to explain what's going on in these posts, but these lyrics are so plain and clear that there's not really much for me to add. So rather than do that, I'll say that for me, the simplicity of the lyrics heightens the simplicity of the scene. There were no frills, no fanfare to accompany the birth of the child. There was a manger filled with hay where he was laid. There were animals and, in time, shepherds to witness the arrival of their King. That was it. He did not come in power and majesty, but as one of us to live with the "poor, and mean, and lowly." The angels sang and announced His birth, but most people wouldn't have known He was different from any other child.

I've been asked before if my heart was in such a condition that I would recognize Him if He were to appear today. I hope that I would, but sometimes I wonder. I wouldn't be surprised if many of us didn't, especially if He came in a stable again. The third verse, though, tells us this won't always be the case. One day, our eyes "at last shall see him through his own redeeming love." We won't see Him through our own imperfect and clouded vision, but as He sees us. When we the earth are made pure, we will be filled with His love. We will be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.

That's quite a transformation. I don't know that it will take place all at once, and the phrase "at last" suggests that it won't be, but if it were, I imagine the realization of how the world looks when viewed through His redeeming love would be overwhelming. Maybe that's why it isn't intended to happen all at once. Maybe that's why He "leads his children on," one small step after another, "to the place where he is gone."

Previously in this series

#9 Angels We Have Heard on High
#10 It Came upon the Midnight Clear
#11 O Little Town of Bethlehem
#12 With Wondering Awe
#13 Joy to the World
#14 While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

Monday, December 16, 2013

#368, in which the mountains in reply echo their joyous strains

#9 "Angels We Have Heard on High" (music and lyrics: traditional French carol, trans. James Chadwick, based on Luke 2:8-20)

The French carol this hymn is based on is called "Les Anges des nos campagnes", which in English could be read as "angels in our countryside," which I rather like because it suggests that rather than the angels singing from on high to us, they make a personal appearance in our own backyard. Alas, the phrase "angels we have heard on high" won out. It's not a bad translation, and from my limited knowledge of French, the two translations are largely the same other than that line, but I like that wrinkle. Maybe I'll sing "angels in our countryside" next time I sing this hymn.

Many people, including myself, are fond of this song because of its most enduring feature: the melismatic chorus of "gloria in excelsis Deo." I imagine that many people, including myself, hadn't heard the word "melismatic" before, so I'll tell you that melisma is the stretching of one syllable over multiple notes in succession. This hymn is one of the most famous uses of melisma in psalmody, and like many of the others, the melismatic word is one of praise. (Think of the other melismatics in the hymnbook; they're mostly words like "gloria" and "alleluia.") The soprano part gently floats over the other three parts of the music, and it's not hard to imagine that the angelic choruses floating o'er the the weary world we sang about yesterday sounded somewhat similar.

We heard about this a few days ago in discussing "Joy to the World," but it's not just the angels who are singing to their King. The mountains sing in reply, and while the easy interpretation is the echoed joyous strains are literal echoes, I think it's no stretch to think that the mountains themselves were singing, however you'd like to look at that. Jesus is the Lord of all Creation. We tend to think of creation as things that walk, talk, and breathe, but remember that we heard "fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy." I don't know that I'm going to go so far as to suggest that the mountains were singing in the same sense as the angels, but I will suggest that so far as it can feel, the earth felt joy at the coming of the newborn king.

We hear angels, mountains, and shepherds prolonging their joyous strains, and in the third verse, we, too, are invited to hear those gladsome tidings which inspire their heavenly song. Listen:

Come to Bethlehem and see
Him whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.

The commands are to see and to adore on bended knee, but while we aren't commanded to sing, I think that like the shepherds and the mountains before us, we wouldn't be able to help but let out a melismatic, 16-note "glo-o-o-o-o-ooo-o-o-o-o-ooo-o-o-o-o-ooo-ria" of our own.

Previously in this series

#10 It Came upon the Midnight Clear
#11 O Little Town of Bethlehem
#12 With Wondering Awe
#13 Joy to the World
#14 While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

Sunday, December 15, 2013

#367, in which still their heav'nly music floats o'er all the weary world

#10 "It Came upon the Midnight Clear" (music: Richard S. Willis, lyrics: Edmund H. Sears)

This is the only one of the fourteen hymns to be in 6/8 time (although not the only one to be in six). And I have a confession to make: I told you yesterday that "O Little Town of Bethlehem" was the only one of these hymns to use the word "years," but here we are literally one day later, and the phrase "ever-circling years" comes up in verse three. I led you astray, and I'm sorry. The word has a different meaning here, though. In the last hymn, it reflected millennia of looking forward; here, it refers to a time long after the nativity. We'll get there in due time, but I think it's interesting that so many Christmas hymns address the Second Coming in conjunction with the First.

As with many of these hymns, we have angels, and they're singing to us about the infant Jesus. "Peace on the earth, good will to men from heav'n's all-gracious King," they say, and not just the shepherds, not just the magi, and not just Bethlehem, but the world "in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing." The hymnal directs us to sing "brightly," but the gentle, quiet way in which the Tabernacle Choir sings the hymn in the video at the end is how I picture the scene. There were animals and strangers in the manger with Joseph and Mary, but I imagine there was reverence, too.

In the second verse, we sing that "still [the angels'] heav'nly music floats o'er all the weary world," and there's not a word in that phrase that wasn't well chosen. We're no longer singing about the nativity, but about our own time. We live in a weary world, jaded and indifferent toward the things of the spirit, and yet the angels sing on, their words and notes floating over the world to anyone who cares to listen over the "babel sounds" trying so hard to drown them out. There are distractions enough to fill an ocean, but the choice is left to us whether or not to bend an ear to hear the music floating by.

The third verse, as I mentioned earlier, brings us to His Second Coming, in which... well, I'll let the hymn speak for itself:

For lo! the days are hast'ning on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When the new heav'n and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

The word "ever-circling" is an apt description of our attitude toward the divine, I think. We all go through phases of waxing and waning spirituality, and it's always the same things that have drawn us away from and toward the Lord over the ages. There's nothing new under the sun, and those same distractions are ever-circling. Only once He comes again, the cycle will be broken. He will reign personally on the earth (remember "Joy to the World"?) and both heaven and earth will become new. And through all of this, just as they have in ages past, the angels still sing the same song, only now, the whole world joins in with them.

Peace on earth, good will to men from heav'n's all-gracious King.

Previously in this series

#11 O Little Town of Bethlehem
#12 With Wondering Awe
#13 Joy to the World
#14 While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

Saturday, December 14, 2013

#366, in which the hopes and fears of all the years are met

#11 "O Little Town of Bethlehem" (music: Lewis H. Redner, text: Phillips Brooks, based on Luke 2:4-16)

I've only ever heard this tune (called "St. Louis," written by Phillips Brooks, the organist at the Episcopal church in which Lewis Redner was a rector), but there are actually several tunes for these lyrics. One is even called "The Ploughboy's Dream," which sounds like a pretty terrific name to me.

This is far from the only hymn to be written about the events of Luke 2. It's not the only hymn to mention Bethlehem, nor is it the only one to mention the time of night or the stillness of the scene. It is, however, so far as I can tell, the only one of the fourteen hymns to mention the word "years:"

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie.
Above thy dark and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

Jesus was born, depending on your calendar, anywhere between 6 B.C. and A.D. 1. Mankind had been around for at least four thousand years before that (and possibly as many as ten thousand, depending on how you define "mankind"), and all the while, they had been waiting for this moment. Prophets had long foretold the moment their Savior would come, and it's not unrealistic to suppose that for each of those four to ten thousand years, someone was looking to this very moment.

The hopes are simple enough to understand; anyone looking to Jesus' birth trusting that He would redeem them from their sins would certainly take hope from that thought. But what of the fears? Assuming they correctly understood the message, who would look to that day with fear?

Well, the Nephite people in the Book of Mormon, for one. Prophets in the Americas had also long foretold Jesus' coming, but unlike in the Old World, those believers had a death threat hanging over their heads as a result of their belief. From 3 Nephi 1:

7 And it came to pass that [those who did not believe] did make a great uproar throughout the land; and the people who believed began to be very sorrowful, lest by any means those things which had been spoken might not come to pass. 
8 But behold, they did watch steadfastly for that day and that night and that day which should be as one day as if there were no night, that they might know that their faith had not been vain.

These were people of faith, but there was fear in their hearts. They had waited five years since a particularly notable prophecy in which the date of Jesus' birth was foretold, and while they trusted that those words would be fulfilled, it's easy to see why they would have been afraid. Yet despite that fear, they kept their eyes to the heavens, clutching their children a little tighter, watching for the star.

As the hymn says, "How silently the wondrous gift is giv'n." The star didn't appear in an explosion, but probably simply appeared in the sky for all to see, announcing the birth of that wondrous gift. And so too, He does not shout for our attention, but knocks softly, waiting for us to respond:

No ear may hear his coming;
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him, still
The dear Christ enters in.

Friday, December 13, 2013

#365, in which still is sung in ev'ry tongue the angels' song of glory

#12 "With Wondering Awe" (tune: Laudis Corona, based on Matthew 2:1-11)

Here's another hymn we don't sing as often as the others, and I think that's a real shame. It's a simple tune, and even if you're not familiar with it, you wouldn't have any problems singing it after about thirty seconds. In fact, if you click on that link at the top and listen to it, you'll probably find yourself humming it all day. And you could do worse than that, I think.

This is a Christmas hymn, of course, but it only mentions the Christ child once, and that not even by name ("the wondrous little Stranger"). Instead, the hymn focuses on the magi and the star that led them to Him. It's a different point of view than the shepherds we heard in "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks," and it's made very clear in the first verse, with the words, "And with delight, in peaceful night, they heard the angels singing." The shepherds were terrified to see the angels, probably because they caught them off guard. They probably hadn't heard any of the prophecies foretelling Jesus' birth. They were watching their flocks by night and wouldn't have been expecting heavenly messengers. The magi, however, were. They knew the signs and were watching for them. When they heard the angels' songs (probably not in person, but in their hearts), it didn't frighten them, but brought joy to their hearts.

The third and fourth verses bring us from the Nativity to the present. It's not just an abstract event in the past we sing about, but one that we take part in today.

And still is found, the world around,
The old and hallowed story,
And still is sung in ev'ry tongue
The angels' song of glory.

When we sing this hymn, we join in those songs of glory, and perhaps literally so when we sing the refrain of "hosanna, hosanna, hosanna to his name!" It's the same song the shepherds and magi sang thousands of years ago, and it's the same song we'll sing thousands of years hence. The fourth verse tells us as much; the star of Bethlehem will continue to shine and "shall not cease till holy peace in all the earth is growing."

We're not there yet, clearly, but I imagine every hosanna and every noel we sing brings us incrementally closer.

Previously in this series

#13 Joy to the World
#14 While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

Thursday, December 12, 2013

#364, in which israel spreads abroad

#13 Joy to the World (music: George F. Handel, text: Isaac Watts and W.W. Phelps)

Yes, that Handel, although it's less likely that he actually wrote the song and more likely that the tune was based on refrains from The Messiah. It's a lovely tune, and not at all surprising that someone like him was involved in its creation. It's also arguably the most famous of the Christmas hymns; Wikipedia informs me that it's the most-published hymn in North America.

And yet I've placed it toward the bottom of the list. Maybe it's how often I hear the song, or maybe it's the sense of shoutiness I get from the song that make me not like it as much as the others, but it's never really been one of my favorites. But that's not to say that it's bad. In fact, it's unique among the 14 hymns. What's different? Listen to the first verse and see if you notice it.

Joy to the world,
The Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare him room,
And saints and angels sing.

You see? No? Maybe it's not immediately clear from the first verse. Try the second on for size.

Rejoice! Rejoice when Jesus reigns,
And saints their songs employ,
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy.

While the first verse is ambiguous, it's clear from the second that this hymn isn't about Jesus' first coming, but his second. He's coming in power, not as an infant. It's the only Christmas hymn that isn't actually about Christmas. Of course, it's still about Jesus. It just talks about the result of His birth and sacrifice rather than the birth itself. That's a beautiful part of the hymn I hadn't really noticed until putting these posts together.

I hate to get all "remember the REAL reason for the season" on you, but that's exactly what this hymn does. It tell us that the blessings will flow far as the curse was found. And it tells us, as I've noted in the title of this post (which wasn't chosen idly; none of them are) that Israel will spread abroad like stars that glitter in the sky. It tells us that knowledge of the Savior will spread through the world, healing it. One day, we can hope to be cured of sorrow, misery, anger, and everything else. Peace on earth, and all that.

Far as the curse was found.

Previously in this series:

#14 While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

#363, in which the angel of the Lord came down and glory shone around

There are 14 Christmas hymns in the LDS hymnbook, and I always look forward to attending church during December because I know I'll get to sing all 14 of them during the month. One that we sang this last Sunday was one that Tamsen and I agreed was our favorite of the 14, which made me think how I would order them all. So I took some time during our sacrament meeting and--while still paying attention to the talks, I'll have you know--came up with a list.

I'm going to share that list with you, one day at a time, over the next two weeks. Keep in mind that this isn't an exhaustive list of the greatest Christmas songs, but rather an ordering of the Christmas hymns in the LDS hymnbook. If I was extending this to all Christmas songs, #1 on the list would be "O Come O Come Emmanuel," and its position as #1 would be inarguable. Consider the lyrics of its first verse, and try and tell me otherwise:

O come, O come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

Songs that mention redemption really resonate with me, and that's something you'll notice in my list over the next two weeks.

So, let's get started. Remember that this list is completely subjective, and that a hymn appearing low on the list doesn't mean that I dislike it. It's just that there are others that I like more. There are a lot of excellent songs here, and they can't all appear in the top three.

14. "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks" (Nahum Tate, based on Luke 2:8-14)

(link to hymn on LDS.org; you can change settings to hear the words under the audio tab)

Again, to be fair, ranking this hymn as no. 14 isn't to say that I don't like it. I think it's fine, although it's probably the song I'm least familiar with of the 14. Its case also isn't helped by the fact that the tune sounds very similar to "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" at first, making it tricky to sing for someone already unfamiliar with it.

But set all that aside, and you'll find that the hymn is actually rather nice. As mentioned above, it's based on the appearance of the angel to the shepherds in Luke 2. It's not too had to imagine how terrified those shepherds must have been, seeing a heavenly visitor in the middle of the night (or whatever time of day it was), and it's nice to hear the comforting message the angel had for them. It's also reassuring to know that angels today can provide us with similar comfort. They tell us of peace on earth and good will toward men. They tell us to fear not, and in a world where fear is increasingly commonplace, that's a nice message to hear.

Angels don't always take the form of heavenly beings clothed in white and bearing trumpets, mind you. Sometimes they're a kind neighbor, or a thoughtful stranger who holds a door open for you. And sometimes they take the form of a six year-old boy, clutching a blanket and telling us all about the true meaning of Christmas.

(Yes, the passage he quotes is the same one this hymn is based on.)

I know I said that the tune was tricky for those unfamiliar with the hymn, but once you hear it a couple of times, it starts to stick in your head. I've been humming it while writing this post, and it's been pleasant. The bit that's been stuck in my head has been the last two bars of the first verse, which read, "'Fear not,' said he, for mighty dread had seized their troubled mind; 'Glad tidings of great joy I bring to you and all mankind."

Pretty nice, isn't it? It's the hymn of the 14 I'm least familiar with, and I imagine you are as well, but maybe now that we've taken the time to listen to it a couple of times, maybe we'll think better of it the next time we sing it in church. (Perhaps you're not LDS and won't have a chance to sing it in your church, since you use a different hymnbook. You're welcome to come with me and sing it next Sunday; if you don't live by me, there are meetinghouses all over the world, and this link can tell you where the closest one to you is.)

Saturday, November 23, 2013

#362, in which a country is traversed

After a couple of months of looking, I was lucky enough to land a few job interviews about a month ago, and wouldn't you know it, the first one came through. I would have probably accepted just about any company that would have had me, but it happened that this one was a particularly nice fit. (They're also fairly well known in Japan, as it turns out. I told Tamsen's parents' Japanese exchange student where I was working, and his eyes just about bugged out of his head.) We were hoping I could get a job not too long after graduating so that Edith could have health insurance, and everything worked out very nicely on that front.

The trick, however, was that we were living in Eugene, and the job was just outside of Nashville. So we needed to pack our things and get to Tennessee within two weeks.

The packing and moving, though unpleasant, wasn't actually so bad. The getting to Tennessee was much more interesting though, and that's the story I'm going to tell here.

Devotees will know that I like to make use of my Twitter feed, and driving from Oregon to Tennessee seemed like a pretty good chance to do just that. I looked at the map, found that I'd have to go through ten states to get to Nashville, and decided to use the hashtag #TenToTenn for my three-day trip. You know, because jokes. I had a route all planned out, a Twitter hashtag ready to go, and was actually looking forward to the trip a little bit.

Once I got on the road, though, I realized that maybe it wasn't going to be quite the fun road trip I imagined. A quick look at the map and you'll see what I mean.

The picture might be a little small, but you can clearly see both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans on that map. This might be less of a trip and more of an odyssey.

The first day wasn't so bad, as it was a drive I'd made several times before. I left Portland early Wednesday morning and planned on making it to Salt Lake that evening.

A long drive, to be sure, and one that would take me through lots of desert and mountains, but not too bad. My only concern was making it across the Blue Mountains in eastern Oregon. It's a chain-up zone in the winter because of snow storms, and I didn't have any snow chains. The weather forecast said it was going to be clear, though, so I forged ahead.

My first stop was in The Dalles, OR, where I stopped to fill up and realized that The Dalles is the second to last stop in the much-beloved Oregon Trail video game. Which led me to the following realization:

As it turned out, that tweet was by far the most popular of my whole trip. Friends spent much of the day making all of the Oregon Trail jokes I wanted to but couldn't, ranging from shooting buffaloes but not being able to fit all the meat in my car to making sure I caulked the car properly before trying to float across a river. I didn't end up seeing the jokes until I arrived in Salt Lake that evening.

When I got to the Idaho border, I decided to take a picture, something I tried to do with every border crossing I made.

A sad picture for me, but perhaps not as sad as the one that followed.

Oh, Idaho. Why do you have to be so Idaho?

Idaho wasn't actually as bad as eastern Oregon. Idaho was shorter to get through, and there were a fair amount of large cities to use as landmarks to gauge my progress. Eastern Oregon just has a lot of empty space. (And Hermiston and La Grande, in case residents of those cities are reading this.) I made it to Utah just as it was getting dark. I took a picture of the "Welcome to Utah" sign, but I guess I didn't save it to my phone properly, so you'll just have to imagine it. The darkness made it tricky to see, anyway.

I stayed at my aunt's house, and my sister and her boyfriend came to visit, as did Eliza. It was nice to see everyone, but I don't think I was very good company, since I was so tired. They were all too well-mannered to say otherwise, though, which was nice.

The next morning, I got up early and headed east through the mountains to Wyoming. The goal was Lincoln, NE.

This day promised to be the least exciting of my trip, as the directions consisted more or less of "get on I-80 East, then get off when you get to Lincoln." I was lucky enough to get NPR stations through nearly all of my first day, but not so much so on my second day. The silver lining, though, was that I got to listen to my ABBA greatest hits CD through most of Wyoming. When I got to Cheyenne and stopped for lunch, I told everyone just how much I was enjoying the CD.

Energized with the power of Swedish disco, I got through Wyoming and saw this just after lunch:

Wyoming was very hilly, if somewhat uninteresting to look it (except for some snow-covered valleys, which were spectacular under that huge blue sky); the instant I crossed the border into Nebraska, though, it got flat. And it stayed flat, all the way to Lincoln. Nebraska was not an especially exciting state. But I had a cheap motel room to look forward to, and I was planning on watching the Oregon-Stanford game as a reward for making it all that way. (And of course, Oregon lost and lost badly. So much for my reward.)

I got up early the next morning and prepared to drive.

This was an interesting day for me, as I was going through six states, very little of which I'd been to before. Here's the route I took.

You might notice that this route would take me through Iowa, but only for about ten miles. It was over nearly as soon as it began, but that didn't mean I was going to miss an opportunity to take my "Welcome to Iowa" picture.

Nice, huh? I took this one about five minutes later.

Missouri was a nice city. I drove through Kansas City, which I'd never seen before, and I spent most of it looking for Arrowhead Stadium. I didn't end up seeing it, but I was bowled over by the sight of Royals Stadium and the gigantic crown in the outfield. It was pretty impressive. I made my way across the state to St. Louis, and at this point, cabin fever really started to set in. I'd been driving for about 30 hours, and I was starting to feel like I was getting close to my destination. I wasn't, of course; I still had three more states to get through, but that didn't stop me from getting restless.

Kansas City, incidentally, is the starting point of the Oregon Trail game (Independence, technically, but it's a suburb), and as I passed through, I realized that I'd basically just played the game in reverse over the last two and a half days.

Onward to Illinois. I wasn't going to be in the state for more than a couple of hours, so I figured I needed to take advantage of the chance to listen to Sufjan Stevens' Illinois while driving through the state it's named for. I did, and it was lovely. The woods of southern Illinois are beautiful, and I found myself wishing just a little that I could have landed a job there so I could have spent more time in that country.

Alas, for what could have been. I drove down into Kentucky. I would have taken the "welcome to Kentucky" picture, but not only was it dark when I got there, the sign is at the end of a bridge, so I couldn't pull over and get the picture. (That's what I did for all of the pictures I took while driving; I think it's a really bad idea to use a phone while one is driving and I made a point of avoiding it on my trip.)

I didn't miss this sign, though, despite the darkness:

The darkness makes it a little tricky to see, but that's the sign that was welcoming me to my new home. Hooray! I mean, I guess; I still didn't know anyone in Tennessee, nor had I even seen my new house.

And that's my trip. It might sound like I'm leaving things out, because surely more happened over the course of 36 hours of driving, but really, I'm basically omitting stories of eating burgers in the car, scanning the dial for the next NPR affiliate, and singing along to ABBA at the very top of my lungs. It was long, it was boring despite the new terrain, and I'm very happy to be reunited with my family again.