Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Shepherds to The Shepherd

OK. So, I blasted Mary Did You Know out of the water the other day, and at the same time, mocked the traditional carol I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In.

Judging from my disaffinity for one really new and one really old Christmas song, it might be tempting to write me off as some sort of Scrooge who can't be satisfied with much of anything. At least, not anything YOU'D like!

Well, depending on who you are, of course, and your taste in music, you might be right on the latter. But please don't think you're right on the former.

Because, contrary to what I've written recently, I think some exceptional Christmas music exists out there.

For example, have you heard The Shepherd's Farewell by Hector Berlioz?

The lyrics are below, and below them a YouTube video of the song sung by King's College, Cambridge:

(Translated from French)
Thou must leave thy lowly dwelling,
The humble crib, the stable bare.
Babe, all mortal babes excelling,
Content our earthly lot to share.
Loving father, loving mother,
Shelter thee with tender care. (repeat)

Blessed Jesus, we implore thee
With humble hearts and holy fear,
In that land that lies before thee,
Forget not us who linger here.
May the shepherd's lowly calling
Ever to thy heart be dear. (repeat)

Blessed are ye beyond all measure,
Thou loving father, mother mild;
Guard thee well thy heavenly treasure,
The Prince of peace, the holy child.
God go with you, God protect you,
Guide you safely through the wild. (repeat)

What's so special about this piece of music?

As you can tell, the setting is extra-Biblical, meaning we don't know what the shepherds actually said to Joseph and Mary as they left the stable after visiting the newly-born Christ Child. We know that as they left, they were rejoicing and telling others of Who they had seen. But surely there came poignant moment, however fleeting, when the shepherds felt like they had to address the conventional aspect of the sheer parental responsibility with which these two young parents were now tasked.

After all, when you visit a new parent in a hospital's maternity ward, what do you say before you leave? You offer some sort of encouragement to the family, you linger one final time over the crib, gazing at the new little lump of flesh, fresh life in this tired old world. And whether you're an ordained pastor or an ordinary well-wisher, you feel compelled to address the significance of the moment with something more than "well... goodbye."

And that's what The Shepherd's Farewell represents. Somewhat simplistic, bristling with awe, and resplendent with gravitas, this elegant piece by Berlioz intentionally gives the shepherds a dignity we don't often ascribe to men of such a drab, lonely profession.

Indeed, as the text in verse 2 implores, "may the shepherd's lowly calling ever to Thy heart be dear."

Christ is the Good Shepherd. His dear calling was to lay down His life for His sheep.

To guide us safely through the wild.

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