Of the Songs of Angels and Our Part in their Story

MilkyWayStones
There are many beautiful carols sung, performed on instruments, whistled, and even hummed to celebrate Christmas. They are among the more significant and important ways of remembering and worshiping the Savior as we commemorate His birth—the most important is to do His works, as He showed us.

A beautiful American carol—not heard nearly enough today—is “It Came upon the Midnight Clear,” words by Edmund Hamilton Sears, music by Richard Storrs Willis. Part of this carol’s power, much like “Joy to the World,” is that it unites the certain news of the Savior’s birth with the prophecies of Christ’s return. Just as surely as Christ’s birth happened in complete fulfillment of thousands of years of prophecy and prayer, so may we trust that the prophecies of the Savior’s return will be fulfilled in every particular.

The night before His birth, the Savior declared to the prophet Nephi, “on the morrow come I into the world, to show unto the world that I will fulfill all that which I have caused to be spoken by the mouth of my holy prophets.” (3 Nephi 1:13) That declaration applied to all of the prophecies, those of His birth, His ministry, His atoning sacrifice, His resurrection, and His return in the latter days.

That is the message of the carol by Sears and Willis:

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, good will to men
From heav’n’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

The carol begins with reflections on the ancient story, proclaimed by unimpeachable messengers from heaven, of the birth of the Prince of Peace, tidings sent from His Father, the King. The carol does not stop there. It moves forward to remind us what that song of old means for us today. In short, the story did not end on that midnight clear; the story continues. We are in the story.

Still thru the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heav’nly music floats
O’er all the weary world.
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hov’ring wing,
And ever o’er its babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

The angels’ work has not ended, their song continues, the messengers of heaven yet minister to us in modern times to our weary world. As today’s leaders say more and lead less, and the “babel” of voices increases, the need for the message of the angels grows. The angels still have much work to do. They are needed now ever as much as they were two thousand years ago. What is their message? That the days proclaimed by prophets throughout the ages are arriving. Ours, too, is a momentous age. We are part of the story spoken and begun anciently, still extending toward a conclusion yet ahead.

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.

As we worship each Christmas time, and throughout the year, let the message of this song, and the words of the prophets—ancient and modern—remind us that the time is hastening on as foretold. As we live and move through the weary world, we need not be weary. We can listen to the messages from heaven and rejoice. We can own the Prince of Peace our King and send back the song that the angels in our day are still singing.

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 Commandments and Happiness

Nothing out of date with these observations made more than five years ago.

We sing a hymn, “How Gentle God’s Commands,” the first two lines of which proclaim—

How gentle God’s commands!
How kind his precepts are!

I suppose that the Ruler and Creator of the world, who offers us all that He has, eternal life (“the greatest of all the gifts of God”—Doctrine and Covenants 14:7), could require from us anything in return. What He asks of us is that we be happy, and He shows us how. Every commandment of God (here I speak of God’s commandments, not the commandments of men) is calculated to promote our happiness and guide us away from unhappiness.

Let us examine a few to illustrate. The Lord commands that intimate sexual relations be reserved for a man and a woman within the bonds of matrimony. This commandment, much disparaged by popular voices, would if followed virtually end all forms of venereal diseases, including the modern scourge of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and the heartbreaking and life-ending consequences they bring. Abortion would also nearly end, since the vast majority of abortions are performed on unwed women. The social and economic trauma of children being born into one-parent households would similarly be dramatically reduced. And the deadened emotional wasteland caused by promiscuity would be avoided.

The Lord has commanded that we observe the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy. The Sabbath is a day to gather with fellow believers in the worship of God. It is also a day to refrain from usual activities we would call work and focus instead on rest and acts of service to one another. Perhaps less observed today than ever before by the world in general, this commandment is particularly suitable for modern times. Increasingly, people are cut off from one another, associations reduced to momentary casual encounters. The Sabbath brings people together in pleasant association and sharing, with a focus on what uplifts one another. Furthermore, it offers a pause from the daily routine, giving opportunity for mental rest and perspective, a time for pondering, meditation, and preparation for renewed and more thoughtful endeavor.

A third example I would choose is the law of the tithe. The Lord commands the saints to donate one-tenth of their income. At first view, this commandment might seem all loss. Is not a person better off with 100% of his income than he is with 90% of his income? The answer to that is undeniably yes, particularly if that income were forcefully taken away, as in excess taxes. The tithe, however, is purely voluntary. The Lord requires it, but He does not take it. You still have all of your income, for it is by your free choice that you make a donation or not, much as with any other way in which you would choose to dispose of your income. That is important, for by making a freewill donation, you give of yourself and receive all of the moral benefit that comes from such a voluntary gift. That gift is not diminished if you, like I, have noticed that you have always received more back in services and blessings than you have ever given. After all, you could choose to be a free rider and never contribute a dime. Moreover, the law of the tithe is eminently fair. All are asked to donate 10%, rich or poor. Those who earn more contribute more, those who earn less donate less, but all are subject to the same rate. Through the tithe—together with the voluntary labor of the membership of a church without a paid, professional clergy—all have full opportunity and satisfaction of participation in the most important work and activity in the world today: sustaining the work of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.

These are but three examples of many. I chose them, because they are among the commandments that some today might consider onerous. These, like all of God’s commands are rich and generous in their benefits. I have merely touched the surface of the benefits from observance of each of these commandments. God loves us, and His commandments are a bounteous example of that love.

(First published March 1, 2009)

Of the Babe of Bethlehem and the Savior of the World

At this Christmas time, as we worship, if we worship, whom do we worship? Is our worship focused on the Babe of Bethlehem, the Babe so often celebrated in songs like, “Gesu Bambino,” “Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” “The Babe, the Son of Mary”?

What image comes to your mind at Christmas time? Is it a picturesque one made up of mangers, swaddling clothes, and a tender, helpless, voiceless little baby? Is this the Christ we worship? As important and miraculous as was this long foretold birth, we may and should linger there, but not settle there.

What of this image?

The veil was taken from our minds, and the eyes of our understanding were opened.
We saw the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit, before us; and under his feet was a paved work of pure gold, in color like amber.
His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters, even the voice of Jehovah, saying:
I am the first and the last; I am he who liveth, I am he who was slain; I am your advocate with the Father. (Doctrine & Covenants 110:1-4)

At Christmas which do we worship? The Babe of Bethlehem, or the resurrected and glorified Lord of the universe? I suggest that it makes a world, an eternal world, of difference whether we prepare ourselves to worship and follow the babe of our postage stamps, who cannot speak for Himself and therefore affect our behavior, or whether we worship Christ, the Lord Jehovah who created the world, who spoke to Moses on the mount, and who continues to speak to the prophets today.

There is a similar question at Easter time. Do we worship a cross or the One who suffered death on the cross, was placed in the tomb, and rose from the dead on the third day? It was no babe, it was no child, who brought salvation to mankind. Though the story started with a babe, miraculously and wondrously born, it did not, it could not, end there. There was Gethsemane and a cross, and a willing atonement made. Then there was a once filled and soon empty tomb, empty because a God had died who had power to rise from the dead and bring all mankind with Him.

The prophecy proclaims, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given”. Note that after this point in the scripture, there is no more talk about babes in the prophecy, but there is a listing of what made this birth so important. It is what came after that was the point of the scripture:

. . .and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this. (Isaiah 9:6,7)

The people of ancient America never experienced the baby Jesus. This was not part of their history. Their experience with the Christ was direct and full. It was with the Christ who saves.

He came to them as He will come to us, resurrected, glorified, all powerful, having won the victory over death and sin. As Christ descended from the heavens and stood among the worshiping people of America nearly 2000 years ago, people who loved him with all their souls, He announced,

Behold, I am Jesus Christ, whom the prophets testified shall come into the world.
And behold, I am the light and the life of the world; and I have drunk out of that bitter cup which the Father hath given me, and have glorified the Father in taking upon me the sins of the world, in the which I have suffered the will of the Father in all things from the beginning.
And it came to pass that when Jesus had spoken these words the whole multitude fell to the earth. . . (3 Nephi 11:10-12)

Do we look forward to the day when we are brought into the presence of the almighty Lord Jesus Christ? Do we prepare for that day by worshiping Him now? Do we gather in those joys that a closeness to God always brings? If not, may we be converted, and like the Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas day revel in the enjoyment of long neglected riches that are ours.

(First published December 14, 2008)

Of Christmas Experiment and Joyful Merriment

This weekend we undertook an experiment. Like other people, we love to celebrate Christmas with friends and family. Joy and merriment have long claimed a place at Christmastide. Can merriment detract from or reinforce the heart of our Christmas celebration? Can merriment be part of rejoicing in the life and mission of the Savior, Jesus Christ, gathering in the joy? Are worship and merriment compatible? This is not a theoretical question. It is a practical one. Try this experiment.

We brought together a roomful of our friends, giving to each just one request: come prepared to choose a favorite Christmas carol, and briefly explain what makes it a favorite of yours, what it means to you, what it speaks to you. Our plan was then to sing each carol as it was suggested and its meaning described.

That was the core. Not complicated, but it was wonderful. We had refreshments, of course, and there were some instruments (piano, violin, and a ukulele) to add a touch of variety. There were just about a dozen of us, limited by the size of the room.

There were few fancy singers in our group (we did, though, have three music teachers, by chance), still the hardiest and most resilient carols over time seem to lend themselves to voices of all qualities. In the course of two hours we had a memorable mix of worship and merriment that produced a glowing joy in each of us.

For my choice I hearkened back to a theme that I discussed in a blog post three years ago (which you can find here). The “Coventry Carol” is a heart-wrenchingly sad lament of a mother for her baby murdered by the soldiers of the cruel King Herod, jealous of the very rumor of a child born to be King of the Jews. I picked that carol, because to me it reaches directly to the meaning of Christmas, a meaning that was prophesied for thousands of years that would soon have its fulfillment.

Some more foolish than perceptive have complained that God warned Joseph to take his family to Egypt and out of Herod’s reach but did not save the other little children of Bethlehem. They little reflect that the Father did not spare His son, but just postponed the day of His murder. Even more, they miss that by that sacrifice of Jesus on the cross—as innocent then as He was as a baby—He did save all of those little children, and all of us who would receive Him and His sacrifice.

There were other moving stories that evening, briefly told, happily sung. One woman related a carol connected to a letter recently uncovered, authored by the man who would become her father, written in a foxhole at the Battle of the Bulge, sent to the woman who would become his wife and her mother. We sang, “O Come, O Come, Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel.”

There was a note from our son, serving a mission in Brazil, who offered a requested carol with a beautiful expression of its meaning, read by his mother. We sang, at his request, “What Child Is This?”

I consider the experiment successful. The influence of the Holy Ghost was present. We experienced the fusion of joy and merriment. To verify the success the experiment needs to be repeated by others. You try it, too, and see whether you can replicate and confirm the results.

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)