“I wonder as I wander, out under the sky…”
In truth of fact, those words that open our carol for today say a great deal about how this particular song came to be: it’s actually a song that was “collected” by a man by the name of John Jacob Niles, a singer and composer of the classical, operatic tradition; but whose real passion was for folk music, particularly music from the Appalachian Mountains where he was raised. Niles quite literally spent years, mostly throughout the 1920’s and 30’s, wandering through the hills of that region; traveling from town to town looking for undiscovered folk songs, making sure that those songs got written down or recorded before they or the traditions surrounding them were lost forever.
Probably the most well-known of those songs is the one we’ve just sung; and as the story goes, John Jacob Niles first heard “I Wonder as I Wander” in a backwoods village in rural North Carolina, sung by a little girl dressed in rags and sitting on a park bench. It was 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression, and this was a town mired in the poverty of those times; in fact, Niles wrote later that it was as though the modern world had never even found this place. Yet it was here and in the solitary voice of a child that he heard perhaps the most beautiful fragment of music he’d ever encountered; and he was immediately moved to walk up to this little girl and ask her to sing it again so he could get the words down on paper and learn the melody.
Of course, this was a young child singing and as was typical, she didn’t know every word of the song; in fact, there was a verse or two she really didn’t know at all! Clearly it was a Christmas song; simple in form but deeply spiritual, and very thoughtful; but what impressed Niles the most was that not only did this song embrace the wonder of the nativity, it also seemed to linger on the image of the cross and of the sacrifice of a child grown to become a man who willingly died “for poor ornery people like you and like I.” Niles noted later that this was a song in which “soaring happiness and unparalleled sorrow somehow mingled as one;” and as he heard this little girl singing it, it seemed as though the song had been written for her.
The truth, however, was that the little girl couldn’t even tell Niles where the song had come from; only that she’d heard her mother and her grandmother sing it. John Jacob Niles spent most of the rest of his life trying to find exactly where that song had come from and to learn the rest of the words; but he never able to find the answer. So in fact, the song that we sang today is actually made up of the fragments of words and melody that were sung by that little girl, with additions composed by Niles himself: his choral arrangement of this piece is one of the most beautiful and often performed choral works in the world. Ultimately, however, it’s the message of the song that lingers; this is one of the relatively few Christmas songs that implores us to look beyond the manger, gazing ahead to the real reason for the child’s birth. This is a song that reminds us that though he shouldn’t have had to, this one who was born king of the Jews willingly ran headlong into the kings and kingdoms of our world and faced all the pain and blood and violence of this life; and did so for all of us “poor, ornery people” in the name of love.
And lest we forget, friends; or choose not to see it, this is a truth – a truth of Christmas and a truth of faith – that was revealed early on.
Even if you’re well versed in the whole gospel story, hearing this morning’s reading aloud does have kind of a jarring effect, doesn’t it? I mean, for weeks now we’ve been immersed in the wonderfully sweet and idyllic details of the story of Christmas: of the baby Jesus born in the manger, of sheep and shepherds hearing the songs of angels in the sky above them, of wise men bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh. It’s the image of the crèche that we carry with us and the stuff of just about every Christmas Eve service of worship; and in all honesty, most of the time we leave the nativity at the point when Mary’s pondering, the shepherds are praising God and the wise men are returning home by another road!
The trouble is, it’s also at this point that the story of the birth of Jesus takes a rather grisly turn, one that we tend to forget, and perhaps even want to ignore, in the Christmas season: the part that tells of Joseph and Mary’s flight to Egypt with the child, along with the so-called “Slaughter of the Innocents,” in which Herod the Great, King of Judea, so threatened by the birth of a baby he feared would eventually seize his throne, dispatches his troops to murder all the children under the age of two in Bethlehem; all of this, as Matthew relates it, being the fulfillment of prophecy. It’s a hard piece of scripture to hear, and an even harder one to read aloud; as quite literally one moment we’re hearing the beautiful songs of angels in heaven, and the next we’re subjected to the horrible, wailing sounds of mothers who have lost their children in the midst of unspeakable carnage.
Now at this point, it should be said that there are a great many biblical scholars and archeologists who debate whether this event actually took place; and who wonder if perhaps this was something that Matthew added to the story to pull all the prophetic words together; because frankly, there’s just not a lot of historical record regarding all of this. We do know, however, that Herod was a bloodthirsty king who killed anyone – including members of his family and even at least three of own sons – whom he feared might someday challenge him. It is said, in fact, that on the day that Herod died about two years later, he’d arranged for a large number of people to be rounded up in Jerusalem and summarily executed; so that even though he knew there’d be no one who would mourn his death, he could die knowing there would be mourning nevertheless. In other words, Herod was an insanely jealous killer: even the emperor Caesar Augustus knew this, and said of Herod that being a pig in his house was safer than being one of his sons.
So the fact is, this slaughter of babies in Bethlehem would at the time have pretty much been seen as business as usual for Herod the Great, and most do agree that this almost certainly would have been his response to any infant born as “king of the Jews” who would eventually rise to power; and I suppose that’s what makes this part of the nativity story so horrifying and utterly unthinkable, to consider that this massacre of innocents came about as surely as the star’s light rested over the manger.
Which, when you think about it, is kind of the point, isn’t it?
The point is that it did happen, and just that way; and it happened for a reason! You see, what Matthew does by including this account of Herod’s atrocities is not simply to connect the dots with biblical prophecy, but to offer up a very deliberate reminder of the kind of world into which Jesus was born. The hard truth is that the brutal face of Herod hangs over the whole Christmas story like a funeral pall. What we see in this monster of a man Herod is abject cruelty and an utter disregard for human life; which, if you follow the biblical story, is what’s revealed again and again throughout scripture, and truly, in and through all of human history! What we have here is a very graphic reminder that the Christmas story does not, in fact, end with Mary and Joseph and the little baby Jesus going home to Nazareth to live happily ever after, but that the story merely begins with his birth; it’s the first part of larger story of who God sends this beautiful baby into a broken and merciless world, so that that world could be saved through him.
Admittedly, this is not how you and I would prefer to “wrap up” this story on the Sunday after Christmas, and I dare say it’s not anyone’s real idea of what the angels were proclaiming when they sang about “good news of a great joy that will come to all the people.” But friends, I’m here to tell you that this morning’s gospel is good news indeed; for what it proclaims is that Christ has come to save us; that Jesus, our Emmanuel has been born in the midst of the real world: our real world. And as Thomas Long has written, “not even evil in its most catastrophic form, evil as cold and merciless as the murderer of innocent children, can destroy God’s ability to save.”
To save “poor, ornery people like you and like I” was always God’s plan, beloved; it has been God’s purpose for us from the very time of creation: a plan and purpose fulfilled in a beautiful babe born into a shocking and violent world. Christ was born and, quoting poet Ann Weems now, it happened “even in the face of hatred and warring – no atrocity too terrible to stop it, no Herod strong enough, no hurt deep enough, no curse shocking enough, no disaster shattering enough.”
Of course, our reading this morning ends on a somewhat happier note, with an angel coming to Joseph in Egypt after two years to tell him that since Herod had died, he should return with Mary and Jesus to Israel; though even then, you’ll notice that even then there’s the threat of Herod’s surviving son, Archelaus, and so the holy family ends up in Nazareth so not to call attention to themselves. Just another reminder that there will always be Herods in this world; but this is why Christ has come, and in truth why even now Christ continues to enter into a world of tyrants and fear and of children consumed by war and poverty. For it is still in God’s plan, still God’s purpose to give this hurting world LOVE… LOVE in the person of Jesus Christ… LOVE that sacrifices all to reconcile that world to its creator… LOVE for poor ornery people like you and like I. It is the love of the cross; the very shadow of which is found in the manger, and which can be seen if you’ll only look for it there.
And it’s good news – the best – which needs to be proclaimed!
After speaking last week about roses blooming in the cold and dark of winter, I was reminded of another, similar holiday flower: the bloom on a Christmas cactus, a beautiful little flower that pops up amongst the thorns of a desert cactus, but for only a day or so once a year, or perhaps even only once in a lifetime; talk about a fleeting moment of wonder! But it’s a flowering, you see, for which to truly rejoice; because even though the day after the flower goes away and the desert sun continues to burn, nonetheless the cactus remains; no less the wonder than it was before, with the richness of its life still dwelling within so it will bloom again. Beloved, Christmas – true Christmas – is the same way; the true flowering of Christ’s coming goes on even though the season of our celebration is drawing to a close. Indeed, the greatest beauty and wonder of Christmas is in Christ himself, and in the good news that is ours to receive and to share today as we wander along the varied journeys of our lives.
Yes, “I wonder as I wander out under the sky, how Jesus our Savior did come for to die, for poor ornery people like you and like I… I wonder as I wander out under the sky.”
There is so much wonder for us to behold, friends; may we continue to be filled with this wonder today and into the New Year, so much so that nothing less will do than for us to go tell it on the mountains, over the hills and everywhere!
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry