Carol Contemplation (Part 1: The Text)

My favorite carol this year is one that few people have heard of and I myself did not know until this advent season. It’s title alone sets it apart from the more popular carols, which I love as well. Can you guess which it is?

Joy to the World

O Come, All Ye Faithful

O Little Town of Bethlehem

All I Want for Christmas is You

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

Angels We have Heard on High

The First Noel 

Alright, alright. Admittedly, there are two songs here that don’t quite seem to be like the others. (*Two of these songs just don’t quite belong!*) One, of course, is not a carol at all, but a song that I objectively don’t like, yet can’t seem to skip…it’s like some sort of disease spread by Mariah Carey’s catchy riffs, as demonstrated by my roommate’s latest Tumblr quote:

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But I digress. The other title that seems at odds with all of the angels and joy and faithfulness is “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” This doesn’t sound like a typical Christmas carol at all; in fact, it’s sort of spooky. Honestly, though, as much as I adore the other carols on this list (Mariah Carey aside), I feel that both the lyrics AND the music of this hymn best capture the advent attitude to which we are called as believers, as mortal flesh awaiting our salvation.

First, let’s take a look at the title.

“Let”
To let is a permission, invoking the graceful giving of a higher power. But it is also an invitation. In carols such as “O Come, all ye Faithful,” we are not praising or invoking God directly, but singing truth to our fellow believers. To “let all mortal flesh keep silence” is to pray for contemplative, anticipatory silence, as well as to call each other to rest in this silence. I think this is one reason that calm quiet at the end of a candlelight service is so magical; it is rare, silent fellowship and, in itself, an act of worship.

“All Mortal Flesh”
In the emphasis on the supernatural and divine that so often (and so necessarily) surrounds the Christmas season, we forget the gross, gory messiness of being mortal. Of being flesh. “All mortal flesh” refers to all of humanity, past and present and future. Dust to dust: flesh and bone.

More so, though, “all mortal flesh” calls to all life that was and is and is yet to be. All mortal beings, from the lambs sacrificed on the altars of old to the pets that now snuggle beneath glowing Christmas trees. The beasts that fed where Christ lay, the sheep grazing beneath the heavenly hosts. Let ALL mortal flesh await. As Romans reads, all creation is groaning with the birth pangs of the coming kingdom, just as the virgin mother with the first advent.

But how can we speak of “mortal flesh” without considering the Incarnation? Indeed, how can we speak of Christmas without the Incarnation? In these two words, we find also our Lord and Savior: immortal God in mortal flesh. From the very title of this hymn, we see the scope of the narrative it tells; not only does all creation suffer under mortality, but the Creator who enters into this messy, painful, shivering mortality. We cannot forget that, Christ was born to die, so that, as another carol declares, “man no more may die.” This counterintuitive gospel is at the heart of this carol; Easter and Christmas are not kept to their separate seasons, but held together in Christ.

“Keep Silence”
Keeping silence is a weakness of mine. I love to sing and talk. Christmas is a favorite time of year for me because everyone seems to be singing, dancing, and wishing each other good tidings. I honestly feel guilty if I don’t listen to Christmas radio nearly 24/7. Silence, especially this beautiful-but-noisy time of year, is something that takes great discipline. And yet, before the angels sang, there must have been a stillness in the air, rent only by cries of pain, animal sounds, and — at last — a baby’s first cry…the first cry of the Firstborn of Creation.

But if we keep our silence, we will learn to listen. The distant roaring of a still winter’s night. The twinkling of the stars like the jingle of bells. The singing of choirs instead of the blasting of the radio. This silence is not the absence of noise, but the noticing of sounds other than ourselves. It is to await something other than our ordinary daily race. It is a disciplined contemplation of the world around us and the creator of this world, who, though he deserved the fanfare of the heavens, entered first with quiet humility.

The Verses
If the title was not already loaded with insight, the rest of the text for this carol is absolutely astounding:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in His hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture –
in the body and the blood.
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the pow’rs of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim, with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the Presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
“Alleluia, alleluia!
Alleluia, Lord most high!”

How many Christmas carols speak of “fear and trembling”? And yet this is vital, for it calls the faithful not only to come and worship, but to reorient their minds (as so often depicted in the Psalms, which also feature the “fear and trembling” motif) toward not only the hope of Christ, but His fearsome righteousness and grace.

It also alludes to Philippians, where we are told to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” This speaks of an active contemplation; although keeping silence, we are actively engaging with what it means for Christ to be born unto us. And as we read on to find that “Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand,” we might again be struck with fear and trembling. If a righteous God is descending to our realm to demand the payment of our debts, Oh Lord who can stand?

But the hymn does not stop here.  We might fear and tremble before the coming of a God we have wronged, but the second verse reveals that He came not to demand his recompense from us, but from himself. Christ, “In the body and the blood…will give to all the faithful, His own self for heavenly food.” In these lines, we make the journey from Christmas to Holy Week, finding that Christ’s birth and death are not separate at all. Just as the Infant Jesus was placed in a feeding trough, he is the sustenance for his flock. In His birth, our “Lord of Lords in human vesture,” prepared the way for salvation and communion. He descended not to demand payment, but to ransom us of His own eternal and infinite, yet mortally-clothed, worth.

Verse three is in a more typical Yuletide spirit, though its language is remarkably strong. “Rank on rank” and “vanguard” are more warmongering words than the usual “herald angels” (“Who’s Herald?” as the Peanuts might ask.) But we see here that although Christmas brings a newborn, in the words of C.S. Lewis: “he is not a tame lion.” Our humble, baby Jesus is not at all separate from the conquering Savior who will clear away all darkness and vanquish the powers of hell. Perhaps this Revelation Christ does not seem compatible with tender Nativity scenes, but this hymn reminds us that they are one and the same.

In the final, powerful verse, the supernatural reappears as the “six-winged seraph” and “cherubim, with sleepless eye” hide their holy eyes from the Divine Presence. The scriptural descriptions of these beings are, frankly, terrifying, so it is no wonder that the angels atop our Christmas trees are more friendly entities. However, the sheer majesty of our Lord is expressed here; even the most glorious of creatures cannot bear to look upon Him, yet this same Lord clothed himself in mortal flesh to redeem his fallen images. How terrifyingly beautiful? How wondrous and yet how fearsome?

This hymn’s text begins with mortal silence, but ends with divine and ceaseless cries of “Alleluia, Lord most high!” This advent, although it is nearly at its end, let us first contemplate in silence and then join in rejoicing as we remember the truth of the gospel, of Christmas and Easter and Revelation bound together in the person of Jesus Christ.

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An Advent Poem

Empty, the sanctuary waits
beneath a tree, beneath a cross—
the branches a burden and trough
to bear body and newborn king.

White wails of a storm without
are vespers whispered warm within,
And yet echo infant, age-old cry —
of beginning and of end.

In the lonely silence, all is dead,
yet all holds living breath:
awaiting — fearful, wonderstruck —
marriage of birth and death.

The tree below soon will glow
while carols sung, bells rung,
but only to light the waiting night
for the ghastly promise hung
above the tree, upon the beam—
O! Lift your eyes and see!

In the fullness of both fear and cheer,
Gather quiet, waiting here:
beneath the cross and truest tree
topped by the Morning’s darkened beam:
Born to die and yet in death,
taking that first all-blessed breath.
And as that storied star must rise,
Cradle cross bears Christmas skies.

Art courtesy of Rebecca Tyler (oppositeendsofthescale.wordpress.com)

Three Principles

As I was practicing piano the other day, I wrote a series of three questions to ask myself as I worked on each detail:

  1. Is it clean?
  2. Is it beautiful?
  3. Does it mean something?

First, I work technically, listening even to exercises to discern if they are played with clarity and precision. Are they clean? The same attention to purity must be given to all other passages, even (perhaps especially) the most Romantic. The greatest pianists play beautifully, but do so over the canvas of excellent technique and clear sound.

Secondly, is it beautiful? Is there a way I could shape this phrase to make it more lovely? Is the sound of the individual note rich and pleasing? How could I voice this to make it even more musical? A great pianist can set audiences to gasping at his exquisite turn of a single phrase. How can I make this phrase such a moment of beauty?

Finally, does it mean something? I was working diligently away on the first two (clarity and beauty) before I was caught by this third principle. I played a phrase surprisingly well and it conjured an image in my mind. It was nothing profound, just a little glimpse of a boat spiraling in a current, but it was enough to give a newfound meaning to the line that I was practicing.

Without meaning, what does it matter if music is beautiful? What does it matter if it is clean if it is not beautiful and, further, does not have meaning? These principles build off of each other not only in music, but in the creation of any art. The artist might (and should) begin with an idea of what he wants to communicate, but he must execute it with technical precision and aesthetic appeal in order to properly convey this meaning. Bearing this constantly in mind as I practice has revived my approach: I am not just playing rote repetitions, but am working with the goal of achieving accuracy so that I can then focus on beauty and, finally, communicate the meaning governing those two.

Being an over-the-top Torrey Honors Institute nerd, I realized that these three principles of effective artistic practice can be aligned with the overarching ideas of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

  1. Is it good? Are the notes or strokes or words placed with commitment to good technique, adherence to structure, etc.? Is the art made with a spirit working toward excellence? This is convicting, is it not?
  2. Is it beautiful? Once technical excellence is established, it naturally gives the freedom for elegance, color, and expression! The “good” allows for the “beautiful” to be made with greater potential to be both achieved and understood. If our technique is helter-skelter, the likelihood of playing a natural-sounding and well-shaped phrase is extremely low. Artists should take chances, but trying to generate beauty without technical awareness seems a foolish one to take.
  3. Is it true? Clean performance practice and beautiful sound build upon each other to, ideally, generate meaning. Think about writing. We follow the rules of grammar, only breaking them when it serves an intentional purpose, because these set standards promote elegance of expression and clarity of intent in even the most unskilled writers. In the same way, poets often follow structural rules because it gives shape to not only their beautiful lines but also makes their meaning more accessible.

As I was reading through Ephesians this morning, I was struck by a note I made in the margin a couple of years ago: “Art of Faith.”

These three principles are not only for the practice of artists, but for the life of believers. Indeed, the walk of faith is perhaps the greatest art. We are restored Images, saved by the Word, called to worship in song. We are redeemed works of art and as we “practice” our obedience and gratefulness, we might find in these three simplified principles helpful guidelines for making our lives shine as art that is pure, lovely, and truthful.

In all aspects of our lives, whether or not we would consider ourselves “artistic,” we ought to be thinking as co-creators and, indeed, works of art. Before purchasing, making, doing, or saying anything, we should ask ourselves: is this thing good, useful, quality? Is it beautiful and lovely? Is it true, helpful, and honest?

Imagine how our lives might be transformed if we asked ourselves these questions. I doubt I would own as much clutter. I would likely speak with greater thoughtfulness. I would spend so much less time being frustrated with the repetitiveness of practice– of the everyday– because instead of just going through the motions, I would be considering even the tiniest details of my life in relation to the three greatest ideals: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

Mariners

We are mariners, mariners we,

made for the land, parted from sea

from that second day and still –

striving as on the earth to fill-

drawn by its alluring, billowy waves-

we drink down the depths

to find watery graves.

.

We hear the call, that age-old call,

a whisper first, a breeze enthralls,

that grows and storms, restless ocean

which floods within the hearts of men.

And from our own mouths, it ever rails:

“Depart, depart, and set your sails!”

.

And so headlong into the deep

we crash from quick-eroding beach.

Toeing the sand was never enough;

we ached to ride the riptides rough.

.

Water there upon land gives life

but here the salt-foam drains it dry.

But never we stop to ponder: why?

Why to the sea, which roars, “Stay back!”

Why tempt a beast, that is bound to attack?

But the sea is within us; we ate of its fruit

it drowns from inside ’til shore zephyrs fall mute.

.

We fashion our ships, believing them arks

to keep us safe from the ghostly white sharks.

But up on their decks as we voyage across

we all yet shoot down heaven’s albatross.

.

Best stay inland, best anchor your soul.

Our bodies might swim, but this old sailor knows:

there is no raft or vessel that might

bear us when the steady dock’s out of sight.

Cast out the life-sucking salt in your heart!

Rebuff its waves with its own cry: “Depart!”

“Easter morn rose grey with fog”- A Poem for Easter Sunday, 2018

Easter morn rose grey with fog

-anticipation hid-

No dawn’s light to testify

to what the Savior did.

.

Still we know and sing aloud

of the Risen Son

And yet the part that strikes me most

was that on Friday done.

.

Rising up is natural;

the sun never stays down.

What is more a miracle’s

a God put ‘neath the ground.

.

That He should live, lifted high,

is glorious, fitting, right-

And yet what is most shattering

is that my Lord would die.

.

Rising reign proves deity,

but in that final breath,

Is found the Lover’s agony

that giveth life in death.

.

Now on this grey Easter morn

the fog is found a friend;

Coronated by cruel thorns,

the radiant King ascends.

.

I know by noon the sun will burn

this ling’ring shade away.

Yet ’twas the shrouded cross earned

the joy that warms today.

.

“He is Risen!” Yes, indeed!

We, in Christ, are raised!

And “lema sabachthani”

Has turned to sunlit praise.

Tenebrae: a sonnet

Awhirl before my eyes did swirl the sparks

As one by one the candles turned to smoke

And sitting there in silent, stillest dark,

A flicker burned within and I awoke.

.

I felt a pang for that dear body broke

That bled betwixt time and eternity.

It seemed I saw His image in the smoke

And felt my heart, too, fixed upon that tree.

.

Oh how I ached to join this agony!

Yet I, near sleeping, safely sat below.

I closed my eyes the better then to see

And hear the ever-present, past echo.

.

To wait in darkness was my only wish;

Now hidden, I wanted no light but His.

Mirror, Mirror had a Great Fall

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There is a story to be found in anything and, I am finding, that there is also a theology to be found in any story. I feel this poem is an apt example of enjoying the beauty of an old tale reimagined while contemplating a truth that shimmered in the retelling.

Mirror, Mirror Had Great Fall

“Mirror, mirror upon the wall,

Who is the fairest of them all?”

I once was asked from day to day

And in reply I’d always say

“My lady, it is surely true;

The brightest, fairest one is you.”

 

It was my joy, your face to see,

Peering in and out of me.

And mine was whitest complexion

For it was rightest reflection;

To revel was no vanity

For I shone back your own beauty.

.

“Mirror, mirror upon the wall.”

I’d thrill to hear my mistress call

And sing to her worshipful words

That beauty best was only hers,

That there could be another one

Would be to think the moon the sun.

 

Yet still a subtle crack did creep

Out from some secret, smeary deep

And when her face would turn aside,

A self-whisper would soft confide.

The dream I dared not dream when she

Would smile, singing, before me.

.

“Mirror, mirror upon the wall-”

Her song my heart did yet enthrall

For ’tis my nature to reflect

That which I love as first object.

In her dawn’s light, all else soon fades,

Sly secrets flee as shyest shades.

 

But then again as she’d depart

(Though I know she yet saw mine heart)

I’d ponder those sly smudgélings

That obscure honest imagings

And I could not but speculate

What once I’d simply contemplate.

.

  I, the Mirror on the wall, 

Dreamt I was fairest of them all!

And as I answered, said aloud

Those words, so false and yet so proud:

“I cannot say, my dearest queen,

For you’re the only one I’ve seen.”

 

“Perhaps,” I pressed, not to give in,

Enthused by this first spoken sin,

“There is another one dearer

Kept hid within this magic mirror

And if I only can break free,

I’ll find the fairest one is me.”

.

O! Mirror hung upon the wall,

You must have known that you would fall;

To try and see your own self rule

Was to prove only princely fool.

A mirror looking in its glass

Will find nothing but emptiness.

 

In turning to a blank portrait

I chose the broken mirror’s fate;

Bad fortune was my prideful gain,

For nihil gleamed the shattered pane.

I thought not e’er to see again

Bright Beauty,

but, of a sudden- 

.

“Mirror mine, though you did fall,”

Spoke she, most loved and feared of all,

“Your shattered face was made for mine

And I have power to refine,

To smooth and polish, good as new,

Though with a somehow richer hue.

 

“You, shaped to be an image of

The Beauty that shines forth above,

Are raised once more to this high wall,

To see the more-than-fair of all

And hence reflect and emulate

That Beauty ever true and great.”