Of Easter and the Constitution

Photo by Joshua Cotten on Unsplash

One morning in Tennessee, almost 160 years ago, many thousand U.S. soldiers were quietly enjoying breakfast on a beautiful spring Sabbath, thinking of little more than passing a quiet Palm Sunday and sometime soon thereafter continuing the destruction of the rebel army in nearby Corinth, Mississippi. That was, until the rebels came calling and rudely interrupted breakfast.

By the end of the battle the next day the rebels were in full retreat, but over 13,000 Union soldiers were dead, wounded, or missing, and nearly 11,000 rebels had met the same fate. Shiloh turned out to be a major victory for the United States Army, opening up nearly the whole western part of the rebel confederacy to reunification. The import of the victory was missed by much of the population of the loyal states, however, whose senses reeled from a bill of losses of husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers never seen before in the life of the Republic.  General U.S. Grant, whose coolness under pressure made the victory possible, was mercilessly criticized in the press.

The nation little understood that the casualties of Shiloh would be only the first of many tens of thousands more who would suffer from civil war in the land of Washington and Jefferson before 1862 would be over. Then there would be 1863, 1864, and 1865 to follow, running the tally of destruction ever higher.  In 1865, near the end of the war, Abraham Lincoln summed up in his marvelous second inaugural address—for a term of office that would last the rest of his life, less than 6 weeks—“Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. . . . Each looked for an easier triumph and a result less fundamental and astounding.”

All Americans today benefit from that profound victory and the others that brought an end to the rebellion and that upheld the Constitution. It was a strange and new thing for the world that the words on a piece of paper, written by men of an earlier generation, could create a system of government and affect so many lives. It was the lives of those who fought to sustain the Constitution that gave it that life, men who insisted on living by those words and organizing a free society within the protections of its provisions.

The same is true today, as with each generation:  we are called upon to uphold that Constitution, those words on a piece of paper, and hand it on down, as strong as ever, to our children. Those men who died at Shiloh cannot do our work for us today. Neither can the men who fought and died in Europe and the South Pacific and on many other places of battle.  Just as important as those who died to preserve the Constitution are those who have lived to maintain the Constitution. They, however, could do no more than pass that freedom under constitutional law to us. We have it today. What will we do with it?

As Ronald Reagan taught in his 1967 inaugural address as Governor of California,

“Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction.”

We must not let it become extinct. It is under challenge from enemies without, who hate the liberty and worth of the individual enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, and it is endangered by those within the nation—some in very high places of power and responsibility— who see the Constitution as a barrier in the way of their plans to replace individual rights, value, initiative, and worth with the ages old system where the government and the governors run the lives of the people and decide who wins, who loses, who gets what, and how much.

Our forebears fought a revolution and crafted a new system in the New World to get away from that rule by the few. The lesson we need to learn anew, is that it is the job of the many individuals who make up each generation to win that freedom again, because there will always be those eager to impose their will on others and use and direct and take the resources that they themselves did not earn, who will want to have their way with other people’s money and other people’s lives.

No one’s sacrifice is the same as anyone else’s. Read no unfairness in that, because to sacrifice is to absorb unfairness. We cannot avoid the call to sacrifice.  Not even Christ, the greatest of all, could.

As we celebrate Easter we should remember the sacrifices of the Savior, by which He absorbed all unfairness. His sacrifices made Easter possible, by which all that is wrong is overcome and ultimate freedom bought for each person born into this world. We are privileged by Christ to be given the chance to join in that effort to preserve and extend the blessings of freedom to our families, our friends, and to people we do not know and may never meet.

At Gethsemane, then Golgotha, and from the Garden Tomb, Christ has created the framework that makes freedom possible. He inspired the founders who built a nation of liberty as the beacon to all mankind that it has been for almost 250 years. As our Easter worship, let us take up the last call given by Abraham Lincoln to the nation as the Constitution was reaffirmed in struggle, who recognized the great value of America for the world:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Of Discovered Music and Enthroning the Savior

nails

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)

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