Friday, December 7, 2012

Two Christmas Carols part 2

The second Christmas song I want to speak about was written by one of American’s best-known poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. His poem, “Christmas Bells”, was composed on December 25, 1864. The poem originally had 7 stanzas, two of them containing reference to the Civil War. We now sing five of the stanzas in the song, “I Heard the Bell on Christmas Day”, as rearranged in 1872 by John B. Calkin, who also wrote the memorable tune.
When Longfellow penned the words to his poem, American was still months away from the end of a bloody civil war. His words reflected the prior years of the war’s despair, while ending with a confident hope of triumphant peace.
As with any composition that touches the heart of the listener, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” flowed from Longfellow’s personal experiences.
Tragedy struck both the nation and the Longfellow family in 1861. The opening shots of the civil War were fired on April 12 and Frances – nicknamed Fanny – was fatally burned in an accident at home. The day before her accident on that hot July morning, Fanny Longfellow wrote in her journal: “We are all sighing for a good sea breeze instead of this stifling land breeze filled with dust. Poor Allegra is very droopy with heat and Edie has to get her hair in a net to free her neck from the weight.”
The next day, after trimming some of Edith’s beautiful thick curls, Fanny decided to preserve some of the clippings in an envelope sealed with wax. While melting a bar of sealing wax with a candle, a few hot drops fell unnoticed on her dress. At that same moment, the greatly desired sea breeze gusted through the window, igniting Fanny’s dress and wrapping her in flames.
In her attempt to protect Edith and Allegra, she ran to Henry’s study in the next room where Henry frantically attempted to extinguish the flames with a nearby, but undersized throw rug. The lightweight of the dress fabric coupled with the hoops allowed ample oxygen to feed the flames.
Failing to stop the fire with the rug, Henry tried to smother the flames by throwing his arms around Frances—severely burning his face, arms and hands. Fanny Longfellow died the next morning. Too ill from burns and grief, Henry did not attend her funeral. After the death of his wife, Henry was left to raise five children and manage the affairs of his home as a single parent.
The first Christmas after her death, Longfellow wrote in his journal: “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” A year after the incident, he wrote,” I can make no record of these days. Better to leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” Longfellow’s journal entry of December 25, 1862, reads: " ‘A Merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”
Almost a year later after that entry just weeks before Christmas, Longfellow received word that his 17 year old son had been gravely injured while fighting a battle in Virginia. Charles had run away and joined the Union cause as a soldier without his father’s blessing or permission. A bullet had passed under his shoulder blades and damaged his spine.
That Christmas of 1863 received no mention in Longfellow’s journal—an eloquent silence during this anxious period.
The death of his wife and his son’s critical injuries were not the only tragedies in Mr. Longfellow’s life. Frances was his second wife and together they had a daughter also named Frances, who died when she was 17 months old. His first wife, Mary, died just a month after she miscarried during her sixth month of pregnancy.
This was a man who had every reason to pity himself and feel cranky about his condition. No wonder he wrote:
And in despair I bowed by head,
There is no peace on earth, I said.
For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.
Longfellow’s words were a heartfelt acknowledgement of painful personal and national circumstances. Fortunately, he was able to access a greater and deeper level of truth with these words:
“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.
The wrong shall fail; the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.
“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is one of my favorite carols because it is so honest and yet in the end, so full of hope.
Longfellow’s dark cloud began to lift and his personal worldview revolved from night to day when he chose to focus on the truth that God lives and is ultimately in charge.
Because of misused agency and the hearts of men grown cold, we won’t ever have the type of “peace on earth” that so many long for. There will always be challenging and even unfair circumstances. We will get sick, lose loved ones, and have disappointments regarding our friends and our families. We may have trouble at work or school or live in areas where there are wars, rumors of wars, oppressive leaders and obnoxious drivers on the freeway.
Yet none of these conditions ultimately restrict our ability to feel peace. When we learn to put our trust and faith in our Heavenly Father, we can experience peace in our hearts—the kind of deep peace that does not depend on our outward circumstances.
Longfellow found a measure of peace even in his heartbreaking condition, as he acknowledged the truth that God’s loving will would ultimately triumph.
Sweet Mary knew the history of her people and had seen God’s hand in their deliverance from distressing events. She trusted that she could rely on similar help no matter what she might be called upon to experience.
Today, above all else, I am thankful for that little baby born in Bethlehem. Because of Him, we have a Savior who looks on us with compassion for our weakness. He learned through his own suffering how to comfort all those who come to him.
He is our true peace and an unfailing source of love and blessing. The words of Philippians 4:7 express it well:
And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Two Christmas Carols part 1

This is a talk I gave last Christmas and I thought I'd pass it on.

In Section 25 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord gave Emma Smith an important assignment:
And it shall be given thee, also, to make a selection of sacred hymns, as it shall be given thee, which is pleasing unto me, to be had in my church
For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.
At this season of sacred music and beautiful carols, what a wonderful gift we have from these verses—to know that we can delight the soul of the Lord with the songs of our hearts and that the result of that singing will be blessings on our heads.
Today, I’d like to talk about Christmas songs. One is by a young woman who spoke according to ancient traditions. The other is by an older man who lived in our dispensation.
The song of the young woman begins with praise, yet many distressing trials were to follow in her life. The song of the older man gives praise and testimony after a very long series of painful afflictions and deep heartache.
The young girl’s words have their roots in teachings handed down faithfully from generation to generation. It was only in 1994 with the translation of the first fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls that we learned the cultural context of Mary’s song found in Luke 1:46-55. Like the Magnificat—the name given to Mary’s song of praise—the song from the scrolls at Qumran also began with the words, “my soul doth magnify the Lord.” Scholars believe that Mary’s reflections ended up as a hymn in the early church.
Mary’s poem began in a manner traditional to her faith—she wanted to honor her Heavenly Father in the eyes of others. She wanted to magnify and bring glory and credit to God with her soul, her heart, and her life. It would be a very safe guess that from his earliest childhood, Jesus would have often heard his mother say, ‘Great is the Lord!” She probably sang it as a lullaby.
In the Gospel of Luke, this desire to honor God informed Mary’s thinking even before the baby was born. Her song included many insights gleaned from a long history with the God of Israel.
Today there are al least 1,200 versions of the Magnificat written in several languages—everything from an energetic clapping and foot stomping gospel music version performed by a Japanese group to Bach with his traditional style using a full orchestra and classical choir.
On YouTube, you can find over 22,600 performances of the Magnificat. There’s something for every possible musical preference. John Rutter’s arrangement is my favorite.
Mary’s words to her cousin Elizabeth honor that God who remembers the poor, the lowly and a young innocent teenage girl from an insignificant village, and it reminds us that the proud are finally humbled and made low.
The verses in Luke are the only evidences we have of Mary’s actual thinking and thoughts. We know about some of the things she said and did, but this is the only text that reveals to us something about her innermost ponderings. Mary’s song reflects a perspective that Biblical scholars call a “reversal of fortune” pattern. As an example of this, we could say that at times, the wicked prosper, but in the end, Satan does not support those who follow him. And while the righteous may suffer for a time, through faith, the Lord will eventually restore them to great blessings.
We can listen to Mary’s words and notice this pattern of reverses. But first her praise:
Luke 1:46
My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hat rejoiced in God, my Savior
V. 48 Low estate of handmaiden (no status in society)
All generations shall call me blessed (very high station)
v. 51 He hath scattered the proud (high then reversed)
v. 52 He hath put down (humbled) the mighty and exalted them of low degree.
v. 53 He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away. (Because they are rich, they think his gifts are not needed.)
v. 54 He hath holpen (helped) his servant Israel (very unexpected for a servant to be helped by his master. But God’s ways are different from man’s ways.)
The Lord esteems the humble and lowly and remembers them—taking action to bless them. People admired in human society are not necessarily great in the eyes of God. Of course, God loves and values all people, but the characteristics he prizes are very different from those held up as desirable in our culture today. His thoughts are definitely not our thoughts.
We can hear possible echoes of Mary’s words in some of Christ’s teachings. The Beatitudes taught by Jesus reflect the same pattern spoken of in Mary’s hymn.
Blessed are the _______ and Jesus chose to fill in the blank with illustrations of people who did NOT feel blessed or happy. Blessed, he said, are the poor in spirit, the meek, and the persecuted. Blessed are the spiritually hungry and those who thirst after righteousness. All who seek him will be helped and filled with good things. Our sadness will not last forever.
Joseph Smith bore a similar testimony to his cousin, George A. Smith, who was experiencing a time of great difficulty. George said,
 “He told me I should never get discouraged, whatever difficulties might surround me. If I was sunk in the lowest pit in Nova Scotia and all the Rocky Mountains piled on top of me, I ought not to be discouraged, but hang on, exercise faith, and keep up good courage and I should come out on the top of the heap at last.”
Christ had learned from his mother’s example and by his own experience that there was help and consolation for all of the sorrows found in this world, and that the source of our consolation is a knowledge of our Father in Heaven and his ways (which are not man’s ways!) Jesus was willing to descend below all things in order to ascend to the Father.