Saturday, December 24, 2016

#411, in which the weary world rejoices

As I mentioned yesterday, my favorite Christmas song is "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," but "O Holy Night" felt like the most appropriate song to write about for Christmas Eve. That might be because I have an association with this song and the Christmas Eve sequence in Home Alone, but I like to think it's because the song is so much about the night He was born.

Like "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," much of this song is about not just the night of His birth, but about the years and ages leading to that moment. "Long lay the world in sin and error pining," we sing, and it could be as much about the night He came as it could be about the time of Isaiah, or Noah. The world was in thrall to sin and corruption, and there was no way for us to get out until our Savior came. And so we waited, and we waited, hoping for the moment to arrive when He came and "the soul felt its worth." You can think of that in terms of our soul feeling relief at redemption, but I think we could also feel our soul's worth knowing that this Child would be the one to take upon Him all of our sins and infirmities. We know how those feel, and knowing that someone else will take them gives you a clear sense of exactly how much they weigh.

And then a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices. We are so worn down by our inadequacies and our inability to even cleanse our own sins, let alone anyone else's, and then to have that announcement come, to see the star, to hear the heralds, to see the Magi, causes us to have a fleeting moment of joy cut through the darkness of doubt and fear making us think we can do this.

So we sing our praises to Him in the chorus. Fall on your knees, praise His name forever, and behold your King, we shout. We go from dark despair that we can't escape to the brightness of midday all at once. If that's not worthy of joy, then what is?
Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.
Merry Christmas, friends. Make it a joyous one.




Previously in this series

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Still, Still, Still

The Friendly Beasts

What Child is This?

Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming

Coventry Carol

The Holly and the Ivy

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Wexford Carol

I Saw Three Ships

We Three Kings

Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella

In the Bleak Midwinter

Little Drummer Boy

Friday, December 23, 2016

#410, in which Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel

Full disclosure: "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" is without reservation my favorite Christmas song. Ordinarily I'd save that for last in the series, but there's a song coming tomorrow that I felt was more appropriate for Christmas Eve.

I think I like this song so much because of the starker, more medieval feel to the tune. While the exact origin of the song is unclear, it sounds very much like a Gregorian chant. The tune was found among a collection of burial chants in the 15th century, so whether or not it's Gregorian, it's definitely a chant rather than something more melodious. It's not flowery or lilting so much as it is solemn, and that's fitting, considering the lyrics. Listen to the first verse:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
We are not celebrating His birth in this song, not yet, because we are singing from a time in which He has yet to come. If we're singing about "captive" Israel, then this is centuries before His coming, and that helps us understand why the music sounds almost mournful and resigned. This is a people that has been beaten down by decades of oppression and captivity. This isn't a joyous song because there's been precious little to celebrate. And yet, despite everything, a message from the prophets is repeated time and time again that there is something to celebrate:
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
The song continues like this for five verses. Israel calls to its Redeemer from the depths of its sorrow. It calls for aid from tyranny, from gloom, and from misery. And every time the call is made, it is answered with the promise of deliverance. The call is made five times, and the response all five times is essentially, "Trust me, He will come to you. Be patient."

The message of Christmas is one of hope because He has come, and it was a message of hope because he was going to come. It's just that sometimes it's difficult to see that hope when it isn't right in front of our faces. Faith is difficult, but fortunately for us, we are given frequent reminders and gifts that remind us why we have that faith. The message is repeated over and over so it's never too far from our minds. It's a message of redemption, of ransom, and of deliverance, and the fact that we hear it so often makes it one of mercy, too.




Previously in this series

Still, Still, Still

The Friendly Beasts

What Child is This?

Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming

Coventry Carol

The Holly and the Ivy

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Wexford Carol

I Saw Three Ships

We Three Kings

Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella

In the Bleak Midwinter

Little Drummer Boy

Thursday, December 22, 2016

#409, in which one can hear the falling snow

"Still, Still, Still" is originally an Austrian lullaby. A handful of other Christmas songs are lullabies ("Away in a Manger" and "Silent Night" being two notable examples), and to me, they're very effective at heightening the sense that not only had the Savior come into the world, but that He did so as a newborn, the same way the rest of us entered the world. They're gentle, soothing, and peaceful, which is the way I feel about Christmas.
Still, still, still
One can hear the falling snow.
For all is hushed,
The world is sleeping,
Holy Star its vigil keeping.
Still, still, still,
One can hear the falling snow.
More so than the other two lullabies I mentioned and wrote about above, this song feels quiet to me. Perhaps you live somewhere where it's either snowed recently or is snowing now, but the idea of hearing falling snow is interesting to me. Rain can be noisy. Hail can be very noisy. Snow is just the opposite--not only does snow make virtually no sound as it falls, but the accumulating snow also ends up dampening other sounds, making the outdoors virtually silent as it comes down. If there was snow falling as the Savior was born, I would imagine it was the same sort of silent. The world was hushed, suggesting reverence at the coming of its Creator.

Snow is more readily associated with winter than with Christmas specifically, I would guess, but I like the association just the same. Everything is quiet and clean as snow falls, and that's fitting as we celebrate the birth of the One who cleansed and purified us. He gave us a fresh start, and that's worthy of a hushed, reverent greeting. 
Dream, dream, dream,
Of the joyous day to come.
While guardian angels without number
Watch you as you sweetly slumber.
Dream, dream, dream,
Of the joyous day to come
This last verse isn't as perfectly clear to me, but this could be Easter. Big things were ahead for the Babe of Bethlehem, but maybe nothing so big as His resurrection and ultimate victory over sin and death. Awful things were in store for Him, too, so the injunction of the singer for the Child to sleep on as angels watch Him is a tender one. He spent His every moment thinking of others, but at this vulnerable time, others took that load from Him. Angels watched, but so did shepherds and animals, as well as a loving but no less overwhelmed Mary and Joseph.

I wrote about this when I wrote about "Away in a Manger," but this is a lullaby not only for the baby Jesus, but also for our own troubled souls. It's difficult to sing a song like this and not be comforted yourself. We sing gently and softly in order to soothe an upset child, and in so doing, we can soothe ourselves. It's a gift that can be shared, and in that way, it's not unreasonable, I think, to imagine that as the Savior spent so much of His own life serving and bearing up others that He too was lifted up in spirit by those actions.



Previously in this series

The Friendly Beasts

What Child is This?

Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming

Coventry Carol

The Holly and the Ivy

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Wexford Carol

I Saw Three Ships

We Three Kings

Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella

In the Bleak Midwinter

Little Drummer Boy

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

#408, in which we are glad to tell of the gifts we gave Emmanuel

"The Friendly Beasts" is a soft, gentle, simple song. We sing about a lot of different aspects of the Nativity in our carols, but I think this might be the only one where we get to hear from the animals themselves. It's a nice idea, hearing what they have to say and how they participated in the birth of their Savior.

Each animal has its own role to play. The donkey tells of how it bore Mary on its back on her journey to Bethlehem. The cow offered its manger to hold the baby Jesus and its hay for a makeshift pillow. The sheep offered its wool as a coat, and the dove sang Him to sleep from the rafters. The camel brought the Magi with their gifts to visit the Savior. 
Thus every beast by some good spell
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gift he gave Emmanuel,
The gift he gave Emmanuel.
The point isn't that any of the animals gave a greater gift than the others, and the point also isn't that any of them are trying to upstage each other. They're all just pleased that they had a chance to participate in such an incredible event, and as lowly stable animals, no less. Each is "glad to tell" what it was able to do and give.

There's a moral here, if we care to see it. At Christmas we can get caught up in gift giving and receiving, weighing our pile against someone else's, or comparing who was able to give the most impressive gift. We can try to serve, or try to organize gatherings, or any of a number of things in order to make ourselves look impressive. It's human nature, unfortunately. We are self-interested from birth. But perhaps we can look at these animals and learn that we can be grateful for the opportunity to give gifts at all. We can be grateful for the chance to participate in a celebration of the birth of our Lord. We can look at our fellow man as equals and rejoice that each of us has something to give. When compared with the gift the Savior gave us of redemption from sin, none of our gifts is particularly impressive, but he accepts what each of us has to offer with the same humility and gratitude. We can do the same when looking at each other and what we are able to give.

These simple songs sometimes end up being the sweetest ones to hear.




Previously in this series

What Child is This?

Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming

Coventry Carol

The Holly and the Ivy

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Wexford Carol

I Saw Three Ships

We Three Kings

Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella

In the Bleak Midwinter

Little Drummer Boy

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

#407, in which shepherds guard and angels sing

We're talking about "What Child is This?" today. I've always liked this one, and I'm not sure I can really place why. Maybe it's the tune, maybe it's the times and places I've heard it, I'm not sure, but I've always enjoyed this one.
What Child is this
Who laid to rest
On Mary's lap is sleeping?
Whom Angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
The question "what child is this?" is a rhetorical one. We all know who this Child is. We know why He is resting on Mary's lap. We know why angels heralded Him, and we know why shepherds came to watch Him.

Knowing all of this doesn't make it any less miraculous, though. Angels did herald Him. Shepherds, complete strangers in the countryside, did come to watch Him. Mary, a virgin, did give birth to Him. He came, He suffered for us, and He lives. It's an amazing thing. We aren't asking who the Child is when we sing this song, we're asking what sort of Child must this be to warrant so many amazing things happening.
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and Angels sing
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
I imagine those shepherds watched the manger scene with awe. These were common people, living ordinary lives, called to bear witness to something extraordinary. They probably kept that incredible memory with them throughout their lives. They may have told their children and grandchildren what they saw, or they may have kept those things in their hearts. No matter how they reacted, though, the experience was an amazing one.

Our experience may be similar. We are called to be witnesses of Him, and we may react with wonder. We may tell everyone we know, or we may treasure it up in our heart, but I imagine we are filled with awe, sufficient for us to also wonder what Child this is.



Previously in this series

Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming

Coventry Carol

The Holly and the Ivy

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Wexford Carol

I Saw Three Ships

We Three Kings

Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella

In the Bleak Midwinter

Little Drummer Boy

Monday, December 19, 2016

#406, in which with Mary we behold it

"Es ist ein Ros entsprungen" is the name of today's song, more commonly known in English as "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming." You may be able to guess, but the song is German in origin, and has to do with a prophecy foretold to Isaiah: "And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots." Most of the songs we sing for Christmas have to do with witnessing the manger scene, but in this one, we sing about the fact that the birth was foretold centuries in advance.
Lo, how a rose e'er blooming,
From tender stem hath sprung.
Of Jesse's lineage coming,
As men of old have sung;
It came, a flow'ret bright,
Amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.
Isaiah referred to the Savior as a "rod," perhaps emphasizing His role as lawgiver and governor, but the choice in this song to refer to Him as a rose emphasizes instead His beauty and gentleness, I think. (Yes, every rose has its thorn.) I think the image of a rose is also carefully chosen in that it suggests a surprising beauty, to me at least. The nation of Israel was watching for their Savior for countless ages, but they did not expect Him to come to a backwater town like Bethlehem. That such a grand event would happen in a tiny town like this must have been surprising, to say the least.
Isaiah 'twas foretold it,
The Rose I have in mind,
With Mary we behold it,
The virgin mother kind;
To show God's love aright,
She bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night.
The phrase "with Mary we behold it" speaks volumes to me. She and Joseph were joined in the stable by animals, shepherds, and later the Magi, all of whom beheld the Babe with wondering awe. None of them knew as she did what this Child would become. An angel appeared to her and told her who the Child would be, and she willingly consented to bear Him, but I think even she must have been overcome at the magnitude of the moment. It's one thing to expect a baby and do your best to prepare for it, but it's something else entirely once the baby is real, and in your arms, and looking to you for comfort and protection. To have that baby also be the Savior of the world must have been overwhelming. And so we behold it, all of us, shepherds and magi alike, together with Mary, only dimly grasping the cosmic importance of the tiny King in the manger.

It's a very gentle song, fitting for a gentle scene, and aptly represented by a gentle image. 




Previously in this series

Coventry Carol

The Holly and the Ivy

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Wexford Carol

I Saw Three Ships

We Three Kings

Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella

In the Bleak Midwinter

Little Drummer Boy

Sunday, December 18, 2016

#405, in which woe is me, poor child, for thee

I've always liked "Coventry Carol," and I was already planning on writing about it when someone suggested I wrote about the song "Lullay Lullay." I like that one, too, so I added it to the list, only to find that they're two tunes to the same song. Who knew?

"Coventry Carol" comes from a play called The Pageant of the Shearman and Tailors. The scene depicted as "Coventry Carol" is sung is the Massacre of the Innocents--the order given by King Herod to kill all male children under the age of two in Bethlehem in order to prevent the prophesied King from usurping his throne. We don't often sing about this, and at least in my experience, this isn't often something we discuss at Christmastime, either. It's a haunting story, one in which violence is inflicted on those who are wholly innocent and utterly unaware of why they are being attacked.

The tune is haunting, too, at least the one I've chosen:




It's a song of grief and anguish, both for the children slaughtered in Bethlehem and for the little Lord Jesus, forced to flee to Egypt at such a young age to escape the wrath of a tyrant. The injustice of the situation, to me, is heightened by the song's description as not just a child, not just a little child, but a "little tiny child." It's a strange contrast to the usual feelings of joy and peace that we have as we sing about the Nativity.

It's no less an important part of the Christmas story, though. It happened, it was prophesied of in advance, and the Father provided a way for the Child to be protected and out of harm's way. It's a testament to us that the Father is perfectly aware of us. He knew how Herod would react when he heard about the newborn King, so He prepared a solution. He knows how we will react when we face heartache, suffering, pain, and trials, and He can prepare a solution. It doesn't always take the form we're looking for--I can't imagine Joseph and Mary were wild about the idea of leaving friends, family, and livelihood in Palestine to go to Egypt--but it does always take the form that is best for us.

It's a different Christmas song, but a really good one. Enjoy it today, friends.

Previously in this series

The Holly and the Ivy

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Wexford Carol

I Saw Three Ships

We Three Kings

Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella

In the Bleak Midwinter


Little Drummer Boy

Saturday, December 17, 2016

#404, in which the holly bears the crown

"The Holly and the Ivy" is unusual among the songs we're considering in that there's only very little mention of the Nativity and that the setting of the song is not wintry, but instead verdant. As the title suggests, we sing about plants and greenery, which have their own symbolism. Holly was a sacred plant to druids, and it had a strong relation with the winter solstice, the time of year that came to be associated with Christmas. That's how holly came to be used as a Christmas decoration, and also why green and red are traditional Christmas colors.

The green of the ivy is what it is (symbolic of life? renewal?), but the symbolism of the red of the holly berries should be obvious:
The holly bears a berry,
As red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to do us sinners good.
The song touches on various aspects of holly--its blossoms, its berries, its thorns--and relates each of them to the birth of the Savior. And then with each chorus, we go back to the world of plants and greenery.
The rising of the sun
And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir.
It's an interesting juxtaposition, to me at least, of a sacred topic and one that isn't. But then, I guess that's what Christmas ends up being much of the time. We have to switch back and forth between celebrating the birth of the Savior and the gift-giving and light-hanging of the season. There's nothing wrong with that, of course; we aren't asked to spend every moment of our lives in deep, soulful contemplation of the divine. We do other things with our lives, too, and that's normal. So, too, I guess, do we sing about the Savior and ivy.


Previously in this series

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Wexford Carol

I Saw Three Ships

We Three Kings

Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella

In the Bleak Midwinter

Little Drummer Boy

Friday, December 16, 2016

#403, in which there is a song high above the trees

Today we consider "Do You Hear What I Hear?" It's a pretty little melody, one that latches on in your brain easily, but with what I consider to be a lot of fluff for the lyrics. We spend a lot of time describing the star "dancing in the night with a tail as big as a kite," but not much time singing about the Child.

But we've talked quite a bit about Him thus far. Take a moment and see what you can notice in the second verse:
Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy,
"Do you hear what I hear?
Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy,
Do you hear what I hear?
A song, a song high above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea,
With a voice as big as the sea."
Notice anything? To me, this isn't a song about the birth of the Child Jesus so much as it's a song about His appearance. Heralds appeared to shepherds, and a star appeared in the heavens, but to many, the night the Savior of the world was born was probably much like any other night. There were no proclamations, no time off from work, no celebrations of the glorious event. Instead, everyone was huddled in inns, heading home to be taxed. If they were thinking of anything, it was likely making sure that everything was in order for that.

Yet in this song, we ask ourselves if we have heard the message. The announcement of His coming is hovering over the top of the song (peaking at that floating "I"), if only we will crane our ears up to hear. It's there, "dancing in the night," "high above the trees," freely available for us, provided we make the effort. 

Many of the Savior's teachings included some variation of the phrase, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." It was the same at His birth, and it is the same today. We can make the effort to hear His message in our lives. He calls to us with a still small voice, and it takes effort and practice to make it out. If we don't make that effort, it's very easy to miss, just as I imagine it would have been easy to miss His birth all those years ago. If you're taking the time to read these, I imagine you're making that effort, but just the same, try to take some time to see, hear, and know what we say we do when we sing this song. The Lord came to earth, and He still lives.

Previously in this series

Wexford Carol

I Saw Three Ships

We Three Kings

Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella

In the Bleak Midwinter


Little Drummer Boy

Thursday, December 15, 2016

#402, in which there was a blessed Messiah born

Today we consider "Wexford Carol," which I didn't think I'd heard before until I pulled it up on YouTube. We had an instrumental version of this growing up that we listened to every Christmas, and which I expect to hear when I head back home next week.



A quick listen will tell you that the song is Celtic in origin, and in fact, was originally titled "CarĂșl Loch Garman" in Irish. I'm not familiar with many Irish Christmas carols, so this was a treat to discover. Thanks to those of you that suggested it.

I typically include most of the lyrics to these songs here in the post, but this one is so lengthy that I'm just going to link them here. Suffice it to say, though, that the message of this song is much more all-encompassing than anything we've discussed to this point. The lyrics start with the Babe born in Bethlehem, but also discuss the journey from Nazareth, the inability of Mary and Joseph to find lodging, the animals in the manger, the herald angels appearing to the shepherds, and the visit of the Magi some years later. With the exception of Herod, this song touches on pretty much every aspect of the Christmas story as recorded in the New Testament.

So what do I have to discuss with you, when I have virtually everything to choose from? Well, while this song is rich in description of the Nativity, it goes a little beyond that with the lovely lines below:
Within a manger he was laid
And by his side a virgin maid
Attending on the Lord of Life
Who came on earth to end all strife.
"Who came on earth to end all strife." We often hear people complaining about the stress of the holiday season, but this song reminds us that the Savior came to take those things from us. He took upon Himself our sins, yes, but also our weaknesses and infirmities so that he can lift us up during times of, well, strife. He suffered to redeem us, but also, if I'm understanding correctly, so He can understand what it's like to have to prepare Christmas Eve dinner for seventeen while relatives argue about politics. His yoke is easy and His burden is light, and He's eager and willing to take our pain on Himself, if only we will let Him.

So we let Him, or at least, we sing about the fact that He's willing to do that for us. We remember who He is and what He has done for us, and we remember not only His birth, but also His life and what it meant. It's a nice little song, and the simple, easy to play melody helps it stay in your head so you can keep the message around a little longer.


Previously in this series

I Saw Three Ships

We Three Kings

Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella

In the Bleak Midwinter


Little Drummer Boy

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

#401, in which all the bells on earth shall ring

I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day in the morning
Today we consider "I Saw Three Ships," and with it, one of the greatest mysteries in all of Yuletide melody: Why are there ships in the Holy Land?

Bethlehem is about twenty miles from the Dead Sea and even further still from the Mediterranean. There are no rivers that lead to Bethlehem, nor any that go through it. There are no lakes, no ponds, no puddles in Bethlehem. There is absolutely no reason of any kind for a ship to be in Bethlehem, let alone three.
And what was in those ships all three
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day
And what was in those ships all three
On Christmas Day in the morning
So why are we singing about ships coming to Bethlehem? Why are we singing about ships that arrived to the nativity on the morning of His birth in landlocked Bethlehem? Are they symbolic? Are they secretly camels? Are they actually the wise men?
The Virgin Mary and Christ were there
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day
The Virgin Mary and Christ were there
On Christmas Day in the morning
 
I'm at a loss to explain the ships, honestly, but it doesn't seem like I'm alone in that. Musical historians don't have any sort of consensus on what they mean, either. It's a complete mystery, and one that I don't suspect has any sort of meaningful answer. So let's set it aside and look at the end, where we sing that "all the bells on earth shall ring" and "all the souls on earth shall sing." That's much more straightforward, and something I don't have to spend hours scratching my head over. The earth rejoiced at the coming of its Lord and Creator. So did its inhabitants, at least the ones to whom it was announced. The shepherds came as they heard the angelic heralds, and the magi followed some time after. We still ring bells on Christmas, and we still rejoice. We still feel the sacredness of the day, and the joy at knowing that our Savior came to earth, and that He still lives.

No, I don't know why we sing about ships, and neither do you, but it's plainly a song of rejoicing, and maybe that's enough.




Previously in this series

We Three Kings

Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella

In the Bleak Midwinter

Little Drummer Boy

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

#400, in which the star is westward leading, still proceeding

Today's song is one that I think everyone is familiar with: "We Three Kings." The words of the first verse and the refrain are almost common knowledge, but I'll post them here anyway as you listen to the video I've included at the end:
We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.
The wise men, however many of them there actually were, are journeying to Bethlehem to present their gifts to the newborn Jesus. The exact location the "Orient" is referring to isn't clear--opinions include Yemen, Arabia, Persia, India, and Babylon--but what is clear is that they had to travel a great distance to greet the Savior, long enough that the child Jesus was considerably out of babyhood by the time they arrived. The magi saw the star and followed it, trusting that the Savior of the world was at the end of their road.

The Star of Bethlehem, whatever it was, is no longer visible, but there are still signs that point us to our Lord, if we care to look for them. We can look for good works, we can look for peace, and we can look for love. The star, in that sense, is still high above the earth, westward leading, still proceeding. If we chose to follow it, it will still lead us to its perfect Light.

But the first verse and refrain are far from all of the song. Each of the magi has his own verse to sing about the gift he is bringing to the child. Gold and frankincense are to honor the King and Ruler of the earth, but the verse about myrrh talks about something we haven't heard in any of the songs and hymns I've written about so far. Listen:
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.
Here we aren't singing about His birth, as we do in most of these songs, nor are we singing about His second coming, as we did in "Joy to the World" and "In the Bleak Midwinter," but instead, we are singing about his death. The third wise man singing about his Lord being "sealed in the stone cold tomb" to me suggests that he was not completely ignorant about why He had come to earth. He came not to rule and reign, as He would the second time He came, but to atone and redeem each of us from sin and death.

The final verse seems to make this clear:
Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia!, Alleluia!,
Rings through the earth and skies
This is a song that would not be out of place for Easter. We sing of His death, but we also sing of the hope His atonement and resurrection bring us. I've often heard it said that if there were no Easter, there would be no reason for Christmas, and it's certainly true. At Christmas, we commemorate the birth of our Lord, but the occasion is meaningful only because of the great work He performed for us at Gethsemane.

The wise men knew, or at least had a sense of the magnitude of the moment, and so they traveled across deserts, mountains, plains, and sea. We can look to Him too. The star is still pointing to Him, westward leading, still proceeding, guiding us to its perfect Light.


Previously in this series

Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella

In the Bleak Midwinter

Little Drummer Boy

Monday, December 12, 2016

#399, in which Christ is born and Mary's calling

Today's song is "Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabaella." I struggled with whether or not to include this one, because I've always personally felt it was a little silly, but several of you requested it, so I decided to write about it.

The song was originally not intended as a Christmas song, per se, even though the lyrics are about the manger scene, but rather as a lively dance number for French nobility. I never would have guessed that, but the quick tempo and the fact that the song is in 3/8 time certainly make more sense when viewed through that lens.

Before we get into the lyrics, let's consider the question many of you have probably wondered about as you've heard this song: Who are Jeanette and Isabella? It's tricky to know for sure, since much is lost to history, but the two women seem to be the subject of a painting by chiaroscuro artist (I knew all those art history classes in high school would come in useful someday) George de la Tour titled The Newborn Christ. Two milkmaids are holding the infant Jesus shortly after His birth. The origins of this song are at or before this time, so one led to the other, but I'm not entirely sure in which order.

In our song, Jeanette and Isabella are two young women who are summoned to the stable at the Savior's birth. They are to bring a torch for light and to announce His birth to the people of (presumably) Bethlehem. They do so, but in their excitement, they are a little too exuberant, leading others to shush them for fear of waking the tiny King.

It is wrong when the Child is sleeping
 
It is wrong to talk so loud 
Silence, all, as you gather around 
Lest your noise should waken Jesus 
Hush! hush! see how fast He slumbers 
Hush! hush! see how fast He sleeps!

There's a lesson there for us, if we care to look for it. The birth of the Savior was certainly a joyful occasion; countless generations had looked forward to it, and for some, it even marked the commutation of certain death at the hands of those who did not believe. Angels heralded His birth, and a bright new star appeared over Bethlehem. Yet for all the excitement of the moment, for all the happiness and glee and fervor, it was still a sacred thing, to be treated with reverence. The shepherds came to pay their respects to the newborn King by bowing and observing with wondering awe. Jeanette and Isabella were a little noisier, and for that they were gently rebuked. "Softly to the little stable," we sing in the last verse, and I imagine they did so, a little quieter and a little more meekly.

It's very easy for us to get caught up in the excitement of Christmas. We look forward to opening gifts, to watching fun movies, to laughing with our families and friends, and to drinking eggnog by the fire. (I am not convinced that anyone actually drinks eggnog.) It's tempting to allow ourselves to give in to the thrill of the occasion rather than the reverence of it. Christmas is a time for us to reflect on the birth of our Savior and on the holiness of that night. There's a lot to shout about, but we may want to take a moment and exercise a little temperance as we celebrate the season. Just as Jeanette and Isabella were told to "hush, hush" so as not to wake the sleeping baby, we too may want to take a moment to quietly ponder how "beautiful is the mother; ...beautiful is the Son" so as not to chase away the Spirit of the moment.





Previously in this series

In the Bleak Midwinter

Little Drummer Boy

Sunday, December 11, 2016

#398, in which a stable place sufficed

Today's song is one I wasn't familiar with before you suggested it to me: "In the Bleak Midwinter." It's really beautiful, and if you haven't heard it before, go ahead and switch off Rudolph and Frosty and listen to this on loop all day instead.

 

I particularly like this video. The cathedral choir do a terrific job of singing the song, but there's something special about hearing the congregation join in. Everyone gets to praise the Lord together, no matter whether they have training, talent, practice, or not. (And that ties in neatly with the message of the song! What an amazing coincidence that surely wasn't planned in the slightest!)

I wrote about this several years ago, but this song is similar to "Joy to the World" in that it addresses not only the Savior's first coming, but his second. We sing, "Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain; heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign." At His second coming, he will rule in power, and every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that He is the Christ. There will be no mistaking Him at that time. Yet, as we go on to sing, "in the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ." The Lord, the ruler and creator of the universe, the one who took upon Himself all of our sins so that we could live again, was born in a lowly stable, with shepherds and animals to herald Him.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,

cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;

but his mother only, in her maiden bliss,

worshiped the beloved with a kiss.
The tender image of Mary, surrounded by hay and the gentle bleating of lambs, leaning down to kiss the little Lord on the head was enough to make it considerably dusty in my house this morning. (It did not help that in the video, the camera zooms in on a mother doing the same thing for her son.) He came in humility as an example of humility to all of us. He showed us in every footstep, every action, what manner of men we ought to be. We follow His example, and in so doing, we can give Him our heart.

The last verse of the song asks and answers the same question as we encountered yesterday in "Little Drummer Boy": What can I give Him, poor as I am? We can give Him the same thing we could if we were a poor child, or a shepherd, or a wise man, or anyone else. We can give Him our will, our heart, and everything we have and are. To paraphrase, what we can we give Him, give our heart.

Enjoy your Sabbath, friends.


Previously in this series

Little Drummer Boy

Saturday, December 10, 2016

#397, in which we play our best for Him

I wrote about the fourteen Christmas hymns in the LDS hymnal three years ago. If you're interested in reading them again, you can find the full list here; if not, you may want to stop reading here and for the next thirteen posts, because I'm going to write about fourteen more Christmas songs, only this time, songs outside of the hymnal. Several of you helped provide suggestions, some I'd thought of, some I hadn't, and some I'd never even heard of before.

We start with "Little Drummer Boy," a song that took me quite a while to warm up to. I like singing and hearing about baby Jesus, but the "pa rum pum pum pum"s always felt a little incongruous with the stillness and reverence I always pictured in the stable. It took my finding a softer version to get me to change my mind.




(This will probably not be the last time Sufjan Stevens appears in these posts.)

The story of the drummer boy is not strictly doctrinal, but it tells of the wise men going to visit the Christ child and summoning a young boy to come with them.

Come they told me 
A newborn King to see 
Our finest gifts we bring 
To lay before the King 
So to honor Him 
When we come 
There's no telling why they felt they needed to bring a child, or how this child fell in with the magi, of all people, but he joins them. The song doesn't say, but I get the sense this young man felt out of place among prominent and powerful men with elegant gifts. The phrase "our finest gifts to bring" may have made him feel uneasy. What could he offer to a King that would compare with gold, frankincense, or myrrh? Why would his little drum be honored against such mighty gifts? 

Yet also, I get the sense that despite his fear, he wanted to see the little Lord in the manger. He probably didn't know exactly who the baby was (did the shepherds? did the animals?), but he may have felt that this was a special occasion. He may even, as we see, have felt a certain kinship with His humble origins.

Little baby 
I am a poor boy too 
I have no gift to bring 
That's fit to give our King 
Shall I play for you 
On my drum

This boy had little to offer, but what little he had, he freely gave. The wise men, in all their opulence and splendor, did the same. That's all we are asked of our Lord, each of us. He asks for our hearts, all of them. He asks for our will, all of it. He asks for us to be His, all of us. Just as the Lord gave all that He had on our behalf, we are asked to give all that we are to Him. It doesn't matter if you have gold, frankincense, myrrh, or a drum to offer. The request is the same to each of us: all that we have, and all that we are.

There's not much to tell with the song (fully fifty percent of the lyrics are either "pa," "rum," or "pum"), but the simple message is by no means not a powerful one.

Mary nodded 
The lamb and ox kept time 
I played my drum for him 
I played my best for him 
Then He smiled at me 
Me and my drum