Of Discovered Music and Enthroning the Savior

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Many people are introduced to the melody, “Greensleeves,” via the well-known Christmas carol, “What Child Is This?”  There could hardly be a better introduction.

I have a theory that all truly great music—simple or complex—is not created but rather discovered by the composer.  Such music is, I envision, part of a body of music already known and celebrated in heaven.  I could be wrong, but some music is so sublime that it seems to me impossible that heaven could not already be aware of it.  It is my thought that “Greensleeves” belongs to such a class of discovered music.  Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Pachelbel’s Canon in D, the folk tune “Shenandoah,” among many others, are part of that divine play list, along with beauties yet to be discovered.  So it seems to me.

The words to the carol of which I write are fit for the melody.  They are a soul deep meditation on why the birth of this Baby is so important.  The musings lead to an answer found in what this Child would later do.  The mortal mission of Christ the King is incomparably important to you and me.

I fear that many modern renditions miss—or perhaps even avoid—the point. Among the some two dozen recordings of the carol in my possession, I recently discovered to my surprise that all but maybe four leave out the second of three verses, the one that holds a central place in the poem penned by the author, William C. Dix.  Some repeat, again and again, the true declaration of the first verse that this Child is “Christ the King.”  Recognition of that reality is important, but how far does it get you?  Even Herod believed and feared that prophecy, a belief that goaded him to destroy all of the babes of Bethlehem that his soldiers could find.

Why did Christ the King find it necessary to lower Himself to be born among men?  That is the central question, understanding the answer to which converts our attitude toward Christ from more than reverence for a Divine Monarch into humble love born of joy and boundless gratitude.  The second verse explains what is at the heart of Christmas.  But listen to your recording and see whether these words are included:

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The babe, the Son of Mary.

This little Child would be pierced by nails and spear when He was older but no less innocent.  Why would He submit to that?  Why would the King submit to that?  We worship Christ not just because He is the King, but because of what this King has done for us.

I conceive of a day, a moment, when those very men who pounded the nails into the Savior’s hands and feet come personally to realize, come face-to-face with, what they have done.  What depth of grief that this knowledge will cause to the minds of those men—of those moments in that day—I can imagine in only the smallest degree.  They will be the only men, among the billions who have trod the earth, who with hammers in their fists drove nails into the hands and feet of the Creator and their Savior.  What will that recognition mean to them?

Perhaps the Savior’s plea from the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” will be the beginning of some healing solace when they do know what they personally did.  I suspect that this is not the limit of the mercy that the Savior will extend to these, His brothers, who were so close to the Son of God in this horrible way.

Then I am drawn to consider, how will we feel when our day comes, and it surely will, when we stand face-to-face and see those wounds in His hands and feet?  How will we feel when we come to understand perfectly, as we will, that our own, personal sins made those wounds necessary, that because of what we knowingly have done there was no other way, that we helped to make those nails unavoidable?  More, how will we feel, looking in the Savior’s eyes, when we fully understand that depending on our repentance the suffering that we personally caused was entirely and eternally worth it, or in absence of our repentance all for naught?  At that moment our joy and our love or our grief and pain will be without measure.

Let us decide now, for we may, to let our loving hearts enthrone Him.

Of Carols and Carnage

Among the beautiful carols of Christmas there is one that surely seems odd and out of place. At least that is how I, as a young child, thought of it. The haunting melody is in significant measure responsible for its lasting popularity, but the words are anything but joyful for a joyful celebration. Rather than recount the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ, the song expresses the inconsolable sorrow of a mother of Bethlehem mourning the cruel murder of her little child. Popularly known as “The Coventry Carol,” it includes these words:

O sisters, too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day;
This poor Youngling for whom we sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.

Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee,
And ever mourn and say;
For thy parting nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

The song helps retell the sad chapter in the story of the early days of the Savior’s mortal life when jealous King Herod, fearful of even rumors of potential rivals for his throne, ordered the slaughter of all of the children in Bethlehem of two years old and younger. Sometime before, Herod had been advised by the wise men of the birth of the future King of the Jews. The wise men mistakenly thought that Herod would rejoice with them at the news of the birth of the Messiah and freely told him what they knew. Under cloak of feigned rejoicing, Herod sent the wise men to Bethlehem, the place prophesied in the scriptures as the city where Christ would be born. He urged them to report back when they found the child, that he might come “and worship him also.” (Matthew 2:8)

But worship was far from what Herod had in mind. Herod’s reaction was typical of many throughout history when confronted by the work of God. He saw only danger to his own power and sought to destroy God’s work if he could. The Lord warned the wise men, who avoided Jerusalem on their way back home. Herod struck out in anger and ordered the death of all of the young babies in Bethlehem. Again as throughout history, Herod missed his mark, for Jesus was no longer there. Joseph, warned by an angel, had taken his little family away to Egypt.

Among those who take it upon themselves to second guess God there are those who would question why God would save His Son, while allowing all those other children in Bethlehem to be slain. Again, these critics miss the mark. They get it wrong by failing to consider the whole picture.

God the Father did not spare His Son from the slaying of the children at Bethlehem. The unfair and cruel carnage begun in David’s city was finished on Calvary. Jesus’ life was spared only momentarily so that it could be offered as the last sacrifice for all. That seemingly doleful song merits an essential place in our Christmas celebration. It points us to the full meaning of Christmas as part of a story that winds through Bethlehem and leads through sorrow in Gethsemane to death on Calvary.

Importantly, the story continues on from there to a glorious resurrection morning on the third day. This saddest of carols reminds us that Christ was born to save us, in spite of the evils of the world that He most of all could not escape, a salvation that extends especially to the children of Bethlehem and to all of the little children of the world.

(First published December 5, 2010)

Of War and Virtue

One hundred fifty years ago the United States remained divided in a brutal war of rebellion. Rather than unusual, such convulsions are typical in the establishment of representative republics. It does not come easy for a population new to a republic to embrace in practice the idea that matters of life and wealth should be resolved by votes. It seems that the age old recourse to arms and blood has to be tried again a time or two before people, who have only experienced more abusive government, come to accept that ballots and representation, enshrined in the rule of law, are a better way of deciding a society’s important issues.

One hundred fifty years ago, in 1864, the people of the young United States were still learning that painful lesson. But the instruction was nearing its end. Back in July of 1863, at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the outcome of the war became inevitable. The rebels of the southern states were going to lose, constitutional government of the United States was going to succeed. The only chance for the rebels would be if the loyal people of the nation lost their determination to persevere to reunite the nation and reaffirm the constitutional republic. Often that seemed in the press to be an iffy question, but in reality the republican will remained strong. The hundreds of thousands who sacrificed life and limb in the field of war, in an overwhelmingly volunteer army (the number of drafted soldiers remained relatively minor), testified to that determination.

In the winter of 1863-64 U.S. soldiers in the field reenlisted in large numbers. Throughout 1864, and into the Spring of 1865, many thousands more would die, but the battles were becoming increasingly futile for the rebel cause, little more than adding to the destruction and suffering that rebel commanders were pulling down upon themselves and their fellows and families in this national lesson in self-government.

For the rebel soldier, experiencing defeat after defeat to his regiment, his corps, or his tattered army—with only occasional respites and temporary successes—it all may have felt pointless. The high and growing rate of desertion from rebel armies in those days suggests so. The historian comes to this point in the conflict and is tempted to describe the remaining rebel heroics and gallant but failing defenses as futile, the casualty lists a bloody tally of worthless and wasted sacrifice—particularly for so ignoble a cause as breaking up the best form of government on the earth at the time.

From the perspective of the rebel “cause” it was pointless, the continued bloodshed and destruction a burden for which the rebel leaders—in the rebel government and at the head of the rebel armies—will surely have to give an accounting before the Judge who weighs the doings of nations and those who lead them. Does that mean, therefore, that the daily struggle of the individual rebel soldier was meaningless? His effort could not change the outcome, only affect in some small way its overall cost.

And yet, throughout 1864 and to the end of the war, there were meaningful and often pitched battles fought on every field of action. The battles to which I refer echo a passage from The Book of Mormon written almost two thousand years before, describing an ancient American people after a very long war:

But behold, because of the exceedingly great length of the war between the Nephites and the Lamanites many had become hardened, because of the exceedingly great length of the war; and many were softened because of their afflictions, insomuch that they did humble themselves before God, even in the depth of humility. (Alma 62:41)

War, on a very personal level, appears to accelerate moral development. Individuals become more virtuous or more evil more quickly than they might under more peaceful conditions.

I believe that for the individual rebel soldier, as for perhaps every soldier, the real battle was his own, and in the end it was the most important battle with the most long-lasting consequences. Abraham Lincoln understated that the world would “little note, nor long remember” his speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, though he perhaps correctly predicted that the world would never forget the great battle fought there.

In the full scheme of things, in terms of what really matters in the eternal worlds after this temporary one is rolled up and its purposes completed, the individual battles fought by each soldier on each side will be recognized as far more important than the whole Battle of Gettysburg. The battle of armies is a temporary one. The battle fought by each soldier, whether he exercises virtues or chooses vices, is the more permanent, the one that has never ending consequences. The battles of freedom were fought in recognition and preservation of these more important personal struggles we all have.

In the battles of 1864 and 1865 of the American War of the Rebellion the rebel soldier could not change the outcome of the war. But in each case his own personal triumph or defeat was there to be etched into his character more permanently than the scars of bullet and saber in his flesh.

As my son has often reminded me, everyone who fought in the Civil War died. And all of them lived. So must we all die, and yet we will all live again where there is no more death. By the time each of us leaves mortality, each must face and fight his battles, the ones that really matter far above those recorded in the history books of the world.

Of Christ and Christmas Spirit

I find Charles Dickens’ famous Christmas Carol character, Ebenezer Scrooge, usually overly maligned. In the end his only significant fault was that he little appreciated, or enjoyed, what he had. He was a miser, a rich man who lived like a pauper.

Was he so different from you and me, we who possess untold riches, eternal riches, and enjoy so little of them? Oh that we could be visited by angels to stir us from our false poverty! How we would enrich ourselves and the lives of those around us!

It was Scrooge’s admirable nephew, Fred, who first tried to explain to his uncle the joy of Christmas. Do you recall Fred’s words?

There are many things from which I might have derived good by which I have not profited, I dare say. Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmastime, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of the people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not some other race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!

Such were the words of nephew Fred, early in the eve before his uncle was to receive the visits of the Christmas spirits. Many await the visitation of Christmas spirits. It seems that each season we hear someone say, “I just can’t seem to get the Christmas spirit this year.”

I have long thought about the Christmas spirit. I may even say that I have given it some study. I have concluded that there is not one Christmas spirit today. I believe that there are at least five Christmas spirits abroad in the world. Although there is only one Christmas spirit that will bring lasting happiness, lasting joy, fortunately it is one that we can have always, anytime we wish, every Christmas, every day.

The first of these Christmas spirits is the HEDONISTIC spirit, the eat, drink, and be merry spirit, the indulging of physical pleasures, an excuse to cast aside restraint, to indulge the appetites and give them a loose reign. Under the influence of this spirit we invoke Christmas to justify things we might not usually do. But if the food is not right or not enough, the music poor, the entertainment inadequate, the money too short, then we might not feel that we have the Christmas spirit, this Christmas spirit. And there is always a price to pay for entertaining this Christmas spirit, a morning after, a bill that comes due, and a satisfaction that fades.

The second Christmas spirit is NOSTALGIA, some longing for the past. In its best form it is the use of tradition to focus our hearts and minds, to gather and strengthen family, to reinforce our worship. Too often, though, it is a sad, often heart rending, sometimes destructive effort to recapture a pleasant experience from the past, whether the pleasant experience really happened or not. From a benign, pleasant musing by the glowing fireside, this spirit uncontrolled can become a brutal dictator. There is almost no limit to the sacrifices it will demand of you and those around you to try to recreate a phantom memory. But the memory is never quite recreated, things are never quite the way we had remembered, and all too soon the favorite ornament is broken, the Christmas tree not quite right, the choir not as good as it was, the dress faded. The sacrifices made and the efforts to recreate the memory are lost but create darker memories of their own.

From nostalgia we come to the third spirit of Christmas, CELEBRATION. We have holidays in order to celebrate, and Christmas has become chief of them all. What would Christmas be without celebration? The Christmas celebrations can range from merriment and frolicking to enjoying the company of others, and on to momentous pageantry and festivity. Times of celebration can be times of great joy, great fun, and bring exhilaration to the soul. But this Christmas spirit can be hard to capture. Celebrations can be hit or miss. The event might not come off as planned. An important person might be missing, a part forgotten, the weather might not cooperate, or things might get out of hand, people carried away. After the celebration, there is often a let down and the question, now what?

I believe that the fourth Christmas spirit is GIVING. Christmas giving can range from the mere exchange of gifts—an economic transaction more or less forced—all the way to the generous sharing of the soul in our love for others, rewarded by the joy of being in the service of God, expressing and experiencing the pure love of Christ. Gift giving has been a part of Christmas as long as I can remember or discover. The key here is the intent, the why the gift is being given. The gift is only as good as the why. But as good as the Spirit of Giving is, I believe that we still remain as Ebenezer Scrooge, living far below the enjoyment of the riches available to us if our Christmas rises no further. The spirit of gift giving is available to, and thankfully practiced by, people the world over, Christians or not. Genuine disciples of Christ can live a deeper experience.

Which brings me to the fifth spirit of Christmas, the one I believe to be greatest of all, that incorporates any and all the good of the other spirits, a spirit that “neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal” (3 Nephi 12:20). This Christmas spirit you may always have each and every year—and every day—of your life. It is the spirit of WORSHIP.

By worship I have in mind the full rededication of our souls to the One perfect being who created the earth, who has guided His children throughout its history, who was humbly born into that world, who lived, died, and rose again so that we might have every good thing. Through this worship of Christ we become like Him, we do His works, and we receive His gifts: as the Savior prayed the night before He was crucified, that we “all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.” (John 17:21) In that way we have it all, all that matters, and that is very much.

(First published November 28, 2008)