18 December 2013

In Terra Pax

It’s not often read this time of year. Yet, for me, it evokes some of the mystery, meaning, and wonder of the season.  Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913, written by the English poet Robert Bridges (1844-1930).  The poem recalls a mystical experience Bridges had one Christmas Eve almost a century ago. Marking the moment in time, “1913,” makes its setting all the more poignant, knowing that by Christmas Eve 1914 the so-called “Christian” nations of Europe will have unleashed total war against each other, hurling the world into a cataclysm of death and destruction, an unspeakable horror that we have yet to come to terms with fully.  Did Bridges have some sense of what was to come?  

A frosty Christmas Eve
        when the stars were shining.
Fared I forth alone
        where westward falls the hill,
And from many a village
        in the water’d valley
Distant music reach’d me
        peals of bells aringing:
The constellated sounds
        ran sprinkling on earth’s floor
As the dark vault above
        with stars was spangled o’er.

Then sped my thoughts to keep
        that first Christmas of all
When shepherds watching
        by their fold ere the dawn
Heard music in the fields
        and marveling could not tell
Whether it were angels
        or the bright stars singing.

I first came across this poem more than twenty years ago and it continues to speak deeply to me.  There’s a nice setting of the poem, slightly paraphrased, on the album “John Denver & The Muppets – A Christmas Together” from 1979, although it’s a little too sentimental and nostalgic for me.  The English composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) set the full Bridges text to music in his affecting choral work In Terra Pax (On Earth Peace), written in 1954, which is how I first became familiar with it.  (I’m a huge Finzi fan.)

Finzi’s arrangement is haunting, ethereal, inexplicably beautiful in the way he envisions Bridges on that hillside. Finzi places us out there, alone, on that frosty hill on Christmas Eve, a year before the war, humbled and in awe under the vaulted darkness and the stars of the firmament.  From atop the hills of the English countryside, church bells, down in the valley, can be heard ringing out their lusty peals calling people to worship, anticipating Christmas morning, announcing the birth of the Christ child.  Lost in revelry, Bridges’ thoughts speed across the centuries from his particular moment and place in time to another when poor shepherds huddled under a similar vaulted darkness, gazed at a similar set of stars whose firmament shined with unspeakable glory, shepherds keeping their flock on another hillside; shepherds who heard not bells, as Luke’s Gospel tells us, but angels proclaiming news of great joy, “To you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).

Finzi imaginatively connects us back to that “first Christmas” by creatively placing into the composition, after “bright stars singing,” a portion of Luke’s birth narrative:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them: 

‘Fear not; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 
For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’” (Luke 2: 8-14, King James Version)

For Bridges, standing on that hillside on Christmas Eve in 1913, reflecting upon that first Christmas evening, time now and time then, present and past cannot be distinguished.  They merge. Seamless. Ambiguous. Mysterious. Bridges says he “could not tell whether it were angels or the bright stars shining.”  Not either-or; both-and. And so he stopped and listened and reflected upon the meaning of it all. And as he did, Bridges answered:
But to me heard afar
        it was starry music
Angel’s songs, comforting
        as the comfort of Christ
When he spake tenderly
        to his sorrowful flock:
The old words came to me
        by the riches of time
Mellow’d and transfigured
        as I stood on the hill
Heark’ning in the aspect
        of th’ eternal silence.

For Christians, this is the deep message of time, the music of the spheres, the truth of eternity given a face, enfleshed in the birth of Jesus.  The “old words” of that first Christmas still speak out across the vast, broad space of time, so that, as T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) knew, “here and now cease to matter.” The message still has the power to gracefully alter our perceptions of the world. We can be taken back to that Bethlehem hillside with the shepherds and that hillside can be transformed into the places where we live and work, worship and pray.  Whether there or here, the message is still the same, old, yet always new.  For Christians, the power of this message—God with us—continues to define us, shape us, mellow and transfigure us.  So, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of this season, perhaps we can take time to stop and be still, listen to the eternal silence, quietly—listen.  Listen afar. The angels are still singing—“Glory to God in the highest!”  Still proclaiming a message we have yet to fully hear and fathom, one we desperately need as 2013 draws to a close: “…on earth peace.”  May it be so.

*This post may also be found here

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