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 Holidays and Recreation

The holidays are fast upon us. The store displays are relentless clues (even if they rush things a bit). While growing up I looked forward to Hallowe’en, in part for the costume and candy celebration itself, but in no small part as the gateway to a series of rich and usually joyful holidays. October ended with Hallowe’en, and then Thanksgiving was observed a few weeks later. Right after Thanksgiving we were into the Christmas holidays. Quickly after Christmas came New Year, followed in February by Valentine’s Day, and at varying intervals Easter arrived amidst the celebration of Spring and new life.

I have a generous treasury of enchanting memories from those holidays. I recall one magical Hallowe’en as a young boy in a neighborhood full of children. The early evening’s streets and sidewalks were filled with costumed colleagues, all busily canvassing the ready houses, milling about, comparing each other’s sweetened haul, each house ready to greet you with a smile or perhaps an expression of wonder while adding to the bulging bag of treats.

Thanksgiving, perhaps the warmest and kindest of holidays, is rich in tradition, from the family and friends who gather, foods that are prepared, the china and silverware that are used, to the preview of coming cold weather. For me and mine, Thanksgiving has been a busily gentle holiday, crowded with activity and effort, but calm and purposeful. Rambunctious noise seems foreign to the day, even with a morning pick-up football game among Church members included. Thanksgiving speaks a time of Christ-like peace in my memory. If there were exceptions, they are forgotten. A prayer, a toast, and a feast that symbolizes the riches bestowed on us by God. In later years, with my own family (my wife and our children), the evening has witnessed the first lighting of the outdoor Christmas lights. Thanksgiving has brought on the Christmas season at our home.

Christmas for us has always been a season, with many holidays. The Advent holidays lead us inexorably to Christmas Eve. In those weeks there are many celebrations, ours and others, traditional and new. We began a new tradition last year that we anticipate repeating this season. Christmas Day itself has been a time when all ordinary activity seems to stop, a Sabbath of Sabbaths. We take an emotional breather, we contact family members not spending the day with us. We enjoy time together and some time occupied alone. For us, we then let the Christmas festivities wind down of themselves to their conclusion at Epiphany, the day we quietly finish the celebration until we near the end of the new year just begun.

Speaking of which, New Years’ Eves in my life have varied widely in observance. Maybe most memorable are an evening spent with my best friend shooting a basketball at the new hoop above my garage door, and another evening as a missionary in the Canary Islands, reflecting on the arrival of 1980, musing on what the end of the twentieth century would mean two decades later. That evening, those decades appeared to be rushing at me.

Then there are Valentine’s Day and Easter arising in steady succession. Each has its own traditions, each creating its own imprint in life’s recollections.

These have stocked my treasury of marvelous memories. I am rich with them. Yet I have more observances to come. To these I look forward.

Here is what I believe about these riches. I can take them out of the treasury each year and seek to recreate them, to work to experience them all over again. If I do, I have but relived and re-experienced what I already have. I add little new to the treasury. Many people celebrate this way. It seems to me a squandered opportunity and probably dangerous. I doubt that the previous charm can be revived, that the wondrous experience of the past can be recaptured. I fear that the joyful and rich memory might even be harmed by the failed effort. Worse, much can be consumed, much exertion expended, and still frustration and misery—for myself and others—may result in the trying.

I believe that a better approach would be to create new magnificent memories. These can build upon the past and work from valuable traditions. The good of the past can be drawn upon to create something greater. The effort is to make a new experience, not vainly recall to life a treasured memory. Not every holiday experience will produce equal joy and beauty, but if allowed to live for its own sake each will add to the fullness of life and the value of our storehouse of life’s treasures. Each will have the chance to be the most marvelous experience yet.

I am not prepared to concede that the best of my life has been lived or that the finest that I can do is recreate only what has happened before. I fancy to live life on the rise. I see no loss in trying.

Bring on the holidays. I plan to observe them each as never before.

Of Jesus Christ and Revolutionary Doctrines

There are several key doctrines of the gospel of Christ revolutionary to the general world. I do not include the existence of God, since belief in God is as old as human thought. The first man and woman believed in God, and that belief has continued—with much variation—among their children to our present day. Belief in God is not exceptional. It comes easily to the human mind. Disbelief seems to be more artificial.

Without an attempt to list the revolutionary doctrines of Christ by order of importance, I nevertheless will begin with the fact that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and in His divinity He walked among mankind for some 34 years. Through word and deed Jesus proclaimed His relationship to the Father. That being true, and it is, all non-Christian religions are human inventions, however well-meaning they might be. Christ being a God, what He said was true, what He taught was true, what He did had divine approval and purpose. There is peril of the highest order in disregarding any of that.

Next I would turn to the revolutionary import of the resurrection, beginning with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Savior’s resurrection was as sure as His death. Jesus made significant effort to demonstrate the physical nature of the resurrection. When He appeared to His disciples in their shut up room on the evening of that first new day He had them touch the wounds in His hands and feet and the wound in His side inflicted by the executioners to make certain of His death, assuring the disciples that, “a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.” (Luke 24:39) When the disciples for joy yet doubted their own senses, Jesus emphasized the reality by eating some broiled fish and honeycomb to demonstrate the tangible nature of it all (Luke 24:41-43). The disciples even felt His breath on them (see John 20:22). In the Americas, shortly afterwards, thousands more beheld the resurrected Christ and personally felt the wounds of His execution (see 3 Nephi 11).

In this mortal world, death is as common as birth. The resurrection, already begun, will become as common as death, and will overcome death, making death as temporary as mortal life. Hence the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians that, because of the resurrection, “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:54) That very physical resurrection rescues from oblivion all done in this very physical world, endowing it all with lasting meaning, nothing of value lost.

The fact that we each and all existed before we were born, in another sphere and in the presence of God, our Father, is another revolutionary doctrine of Christ. Jesus taught that His Father was also our Father, the literal Father of our spirits. On the morning of His resurrection, Jesus commanded Mary Magdalene to tell His disciples, “I ascend unto my Father, and your Father” (John 20:17). The Apostle Paul, who taught that we should obey “the Father of spirits, and live” (Hebrews 12:9), wrote to the Romans, “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16, 17).

As His spirit children, we lived in the presence of our Eternal Father before this creation. The earth was purposely made for us, designed for our growth and development in our brief mortality. Not only did Christ’s resurrection preserve meaning and purpose for this mortal existence, but that purpose preceded the beginning of mortality. Among the many consequences of that revolutionary truth is the reality that all members of the human race are more than figuratively brothers and sisters. The children born to mortal parents existed before their birth, and they come from the same eternal home as did their parents. There is a deep-rooted respect that is due in both directions between parent and child.

In that context it is appropriate to recognize the revolutionary import of the Christian doctrine of the eternal nature of the marriage relationship. If we come from an eternal family that was formed before the earth was, then it becomes natural to recognize that life’s closest relationship, between husband and wife, is not a temporary arrangement. Love is the highest virtue of the highest heaven. Love finds its deepest manifestation in the marriage union. God, who preserves all good things, could not mean for that relationship to end with death. As Christ paved the way for us to live on through the eternities, so He prepared the way for a loving marriage to last forever for those who desire it enough.

Perhaps on another day I will more than touch upon other Christian doctrines that revolutionize the world and human relations. Among these would be the opportunity to talk with God and receive direct, personal revelation; the ability to change human nature, for better or for worse; the reality of individual freedom, such that God is not responsible for our personal decisions, we own them; and the continuing, unfinished canon of divine scripture, from ancient time into the modern era (scriptures were always revealed in a modern era to those who first received them).

These revolutionary doctrines of Christ are eternal, connecting us to an eternal universe, which makes them revolutionary to a mortal world where endings seem to prevail. They are rejuvenating to mind and spirit. When Christ taught them to the people of the ancient Americas, He declared that “all things have become new.” (3 Nephi 12:47) They make things new today.