It’s Christmas Eve – time for another litany of things that are cool about the earth, and oh, before we forget, a little of humanity too, because we’re not actually part of nature.
I know why we have this World of Nature section, and why we have these hymns that praise said nature. And yes, some of them have been incredibly inspiring and beautiful. But I can’t deny a little joy at the prospect of turning the page and getting into the meditation and mystical songs tomorrow. I will say that one of my colleagues was right: this is why we don’t just sing through the hymnal in order on a regular basis; when taking the 15,000 foot view, I can see how it’s good to have some options that we might dip into. This is the downside of this spiritual practice – all the hymns of one kind in one fell swoop.
Now let’s look at the lyrics: these are the words of famous Unitarian activist John Haynes Holmes, founding minister of Community Church of New York, and who, among other things, helped found the NCAAP and the ACLU. I’m glad I get to talk about Holmes briefly, but I wish it were in a different setting, because he’s not exactly known for writing hymn lyrics. They’re lovely, but I prefer Holmes when he’s being prophetic and railing against war. Hymn writing was not his strong suit.
This land of bursting sunrise, all lavender and blue,
its cloud-strewn, light-swept day skies flow, and every day renew.
To east the glow of dawning, to west the blaze of night,
‘round all the long horizon’s rim, the everlasting light!
This land of open vistas, life rooted deep and free,
thy canyoned plains, thy mountains vast, plumb earth’s immensity.
Here in life’s fragile balance, the sun and stars above,
find hand in hand, and heart to heart, the everlasting love.
The lyrics are set to a modern tune by David Johnson that is rolling and minor and has all of those unusual chord progressions that make you focus on the singing and then lead you to wonder why, other than meter, this pairing exists. There’s a disconnect here for me that I can’t quite parse. If you’re going to talk to me about the loveliness of nature and the loveliness of us being hand in hand and heart to heart, then I want a lovely melody. Yes, it’s set in 6/8 and rolls in the accompaniment, but even that, to my ear, isn’t enough to save it.
Curious as always, of course, I then turned to the internet to see what it could tell me, all the while wishing I could just sing an easy Christmas carol and be done with this juxtaposition of definitely-not-holiday-music and holiday-on-nauseating-repeat.
What the internet told me is that the original lyrics to this hymn are as Christmas Eve as they come:
A stable lamp is lighted
whose glow shall wake the sky;
the stars shall bend their voices,
and every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
and straw like gold shall shine;
a barn shall harbour heaven,
a stall become a shrine.
Subsequent verses tell of Jesus’s life story, because we need a reminder I guess, and wraps up back at the night of his birth.
So there it is. This slog through the World of Nature landed me right where we actually are. Whodathunkit?
(Yes, faithful readers: there will be a reflection tomorrow. It’s one of my favorite hymns coming up – feels like a Christmas present to me!)