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)