Monday, December 14, 2009

Fall on Your Knees: Looking at Christmas Music

We had an amazing musical program at church on Sunday. We have several girls in Concert Choir, a classical guitar major, and other wonderful musicians. Our Relief Society President is in Concert Choir and is an English major, so she gave a powerful lesson on a literary analysis of Christmas music.

We first looked at a phrase from "What Child is This?" The phrase that had really struck her was "Good Christians fear; for sinners here the silent Word is pleading." The semicolon means that these are two different statements connected by an overarching theme. They could be two separate sentences. Why are the good Christians counseled to fear? I think it's out of humility, that if they are self-righteous, thinking themselves "good Christians" rather than sinners, they may not receive salvation. Christ came to save sinners.

I also love the phrase "silent Word." Word is capitalized, referring to Christ Himself (such as in John chapter 1). I also love that it is the "silent Word." What good is a word that is silent, not heard? And yet Christ is silent so many times, waiting for us to be humble enough to come unto Him. He does not compromise our agency or impose upon us. He is silent. He waits.

I also love the meaning of the word "pleading." It's heartfelt and sincere asking, similar to begging but without the connotation of inferiority. I think pleading represents asking with our whole hearts, doing all we can do to invite and persuade someone. That's what Christ does for us. He is continually pleading, asking us with all the energy and love He possesses, to come unto Him and find eternal life. If He is asking with His whole soul, should we not respond with the wholeness of our souls?

Another great phrase in "What Child is This?" is "Come Peasant Kings to own Him." I love the concept of the peasant kings; each of us, now matter how lowly in the eyes of the world, can become a king or queen through the Atonement of Jesus the Christ. But we need to "own Him." I believe that in coming to know Christ and forming our own relationship with Him, we, in a sense, own part of Him. He becomes real to us. We access His grace and are made perfect through His Atonement.

One of the phrases I love from Christmas music is from "O Holy Night." The admonition to "Fall on your knees" reminds me of how much I owe my Savior, how sometimes I need to stop everything I am doing and commune with Him. It reminds me that without His help, I cannot stand. It reminds me that I need to be more humble and make more room for Him in my life, to let go of the things of the world and surrender all to Him.

I think my favorite Christmas song, however, is "Silent Night." I love it because of the story of how it came about.

In 1818, a roving band of actors was performing in towns throughout the Austrian Alps. On December 23 they arrived at Oberndorf, a village near Salzburg where they were to perform the story of Christ's birth in the small Church of St. Nicholas.
Unfortunately, the St. Nicholas' church organ wasn't working and would not be repaired before Christmas. Because the church organ was out of commission, the actors presented their Christmas drama in a private home. Even so, that Christmas presentation put assistant pastor Josef Mohr in a meditative mood. Instead of walking straight to his house that night, Mohr took a longer way home. The longer path took him up over a hill overlooking the village.
From that hilltop, Mohr looked down on the peaceful snow-covered village. Reveling in majestic silence of the wintry night, Mohr gazed down at the glowing scene. His thoughts about the Christmas play suddenly made him to remember a poem he had written a couple of years before. It was a poem about the night when angels announced the birth of the long-awaited Messiah to shepherds on a hillside.
Mohr decided those words would make a good carol for his congregation the following evening at their Christmas eve service. However, he didn't have any music to which that poem could be sung. So, the next day Mohr went to see the church organist, Franz Xaver Gruber. Gruber only had a few hours to come up with a melody which could be sung with a guitar. However, by that evening, Gruber had managed to compose a musical setting for the poem. It no longer mattered that their church organ was broken. They now had a Christmas carol they could sing without it.
On Christmas Eve, the little Oberndorf congregation heard Gruber and Mohr sing their new composition to the accompaniment of Gruber's guitar.
Weeks later, well-known organ builder Karl Mauracher arrived to fix the St. Nicholas church organ. When he finished, Mauracher stepped back to let Gruber test the instrument. When Gruber sat down, his fingers began playing the simple melody he had written for Mohr's Christmas poem. Deeply impressed, Mauracher took the music and words of "Silent Night" back to his own Alpine village, Kapfing. There, two well-known families of singers -- the Rainers and the Strassers -- heard it. Captivated by "Silent Night," both groups put the new song into their Christmas season repertoire.

The Strasser sisters spread the carol throughout northern Europe. In 1834, after they had performed "Silent Night" for King Frederick William IV of Prussia, that king ordered his cathedral choir to sing it every Christmas eve.
The Rainers brought the song to the United States in 1839, singing it (in German) at the Alexander Hamilton Monument located outside New York City's Trinity Church.
In 1863, nearly fifty years after being first sung in German, "Silent Night" was translated into English (by either Jane Campbell or John Young). In 1871 the English version was published in an American hymnal: Charles Hutchins' Sunday School Hymnal.

I love this story because Mohr and Gruber were just trying to have a nice Christmas service for their congregation. They wrote the song to truly testify of Christ, and had no idea that their humble project would become one of the most beloved Christmas carols of all time. It reminds me that my humble works can be great in the eyes of God. I love the song itself because it is slow, peaceful, and simple. It brings the Spirit and helps Christ to make my soul still. It helps me to trust Him and find peace in Him.

I love this time of year and the opportunity to testify of Christ and become more like Him. I love being able to listen to these songs and learn a little more about Him every year. I am grateful for His Atonement that helps me become a little better every day. I am grateful for His patience with me. I am grateful for the fullness of His gospel. I am grateful for every single thing He has put into my life and what I learn from them. I am grateful that I can have a relationship with Him. I am so grateful that He is my best friend who walks with me every step of the way.

Fall on your knees.

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