Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Bethlehem Down

Bethlehem Down
Words by Bruce Blunt (1899-1957)
Music by Peter Warlock (1894-1930)

“When He is King we will give him the King's gifts,
Myrrh for its sweetness, and gold for a crown,
Beautiful robes,” said the young girl to Joseph,
Fair with her first-born on Bethlehem Down.

Bethlehem Down is full of the starlight
Winds for the spices, and stars for the gold,
Mary for sleep, and for lullaby music
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold.

When He is King they will clothe him in grave-sheets,
Myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown,
He that lies now in the white arms of Mary,
Sleeping so lightly on Bethlehem Down.

Here He has peace and a short while for dreaming,
Close huddled oxen to keep him from cold,
Mary for love, and for lullaby music
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold.
Reflection by Benjamin Straley 
I know this is an Advent blog, but after the Fourth Sunday of Advent, my mind has shifted over toward Christmas, and this carol text and its musical setting are among my very favorites. Its origins are a bit peculiar, however. 
It came about as a submission to the London Daily Telegraph’s annual carol contest.  The poet, Bruce Blunt, and his friend, the composer, Peter Warlock were notorious drunks, and found themselves strapped for cash approaching Christmas. So they entered the Telegraph’s contest, duly won, and used the prize money to finance an “immortal carouse” on Christmas Eve 1927.

Despite the impure motivation of its composition, the haunting poignancy of the text, and the music’s ability to convey at once the comfort of Mary’s arms as well as the agony of the Passion, drive me to listen to it over and over again during the Advent and Christmas seasons.

The first stanza, with Mary’s hopes for her newborn, who she knows is the Son of God, stand in stark contrast to the fulfillment of those hopes in the third stanza. I’m not so sure Mary was as naïve as the poet makes out, but even if she understood that Jesus would be King, maybe she didn’t yet know what that would mean, ultimately.  Her hopes were the hopes of a nation – but Jesus’ death defied all their expectations of what the Messiah looked like.

I wonder, when we talk about Hope – and Advent as a season of Hope – what kind of Hope do we hold in our spiritual imaginations? Is it the warm hope of an infant laid in a manger, or it is a cruciform hope – one that allows its fulfillment to be realized in ways which we might not readily embrace.  As I write this, I think, perhaps, “Where is my Christmas joy?” It’s there, I assure you.  But as I sit here at my desk, my eyes notice the liturgical calendar to the right of my computer, and I can’t help but be reminded that the Twelve Days of Christmas include the Feast Days of St. Stephen, the first martyr, The Holy Innocents, and St. Thomas Becket, murdered archbishop of Canterbury. The Church has always held joy and suffering in tension with one another, it would seem.  It is this nuanced understanding of hope, viewed through a Christian lens, that prevents our celebrations of Christmas from being the sanitized, consumer-driven ones we see all around us this time of year.

So as we near the end of our Advent journey, and our preparations lead us ever closer to our commemoration of the Incarnation, I wish you who read this a truly blessed Christmas, one filled with an abundance of peace, a peace which surpasses all our understanding.

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