School is out! The past two evenings have been wonderful. Instead of rushing off to campus, on Wednesday we took the kids downtown for dinner and then a walk around Temple Square to see the Christmas lights, and last night we watched A Charlie Brown Christmas with them.
I’d forgotten a lot of it. I probably haven’t seen Charlie Brown since I was a kid, and it’s so different watching it as an adult. I definitely sympathize with Charlie Brown when he rants about being depressed around the holidays, hating the commercialism, and wishing he could find the spirit of Christmas.
And wow, how moving is it when Linus steps into the spotlight and recites Luke 2? There’s something so powerful about those words that even when a cartoon character is speaking them, they’re absolutely beautiful:
“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 Saviour, 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.”
All scripture is beautiful to me — whether from the Bible, the Qur’an, the Book of Mormon, etc — and I wonder why that is. Is it the richness of how language was used in those time periods? Is it the archaic syntax, like “unto you is” and “ye shall,” that makes the words impressive in the same way calligraphy does, dressed in their formal finest? Is it that those who wrote the scriptures felt so inspired by a love of God that they penned only the best words to express it?
What is it about the words of scripture just as words — setting aside whether you believe they were authored by God or men — that makes them so inspiring?
Sunday night I went with my sister to a Christmas concert in a beautiful old church building called the Provo Tabernacle*. Inside, the long pews are made of wood carved more than a century ago, the ones up on the sides of the balcony slanting down toward the large pipe organ in the front so that you feel as though you’ll slide into the person next to you if you’re not careful to lean the other way. The organizers of the event had created a stage for the orchestra by building a platform over ten or so of the pews in the center of the tabernacle, and the choir stood above them in front of the organ.
My brother plays the viola in this concert every year, which is the main reason we go, but I admit that I also go for the selfish reason that I love it. Like Charlie Brown, I have trouble getting in the Christmas spirit each year, and I go to this concert specifically to find that spirit. The music is always gorgeous, the talks simple and profound at the same time, and I love to sit in the balcony observing it all from above and marvelling at the feeling that pervades.
By far the best part is when the orchestra plays the “Hallelujah Chorus” at the end and everyone stands to join them. My sister and I were both choir geeks in high school and know our part in that piece well, and how heavenly it is to stand next to her and sing those words loud:
“Hallelujah! For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth! Hallelujah! The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign forever and ever, King of kings . . .”
I read that it was the words that inspired Handel to compose the music of The Messiah. Of course it was. But I didn’t know that the verses of scripture he used were compiled from so many various books in the Bible. I guess I’d always assumed it was just from Isaiah, but the “Hallelujah Chorus” comes from Revelation, for example. So it wasn’t just that Isaiah was an incredible writer (though I think he was); it’s something about most scripture.
Maybe I’m biased because I grew up with the King James version of the Bible, but I love the –eths and shalls, the untos and beholds. When I pray, I use words like thee and thy to invoke a sense of reverence, and maybe that’s what happens in scripture, too. The language isn’t clipped and truncated and hurried the way we speak now; it’s profound and hallowed in its antiquity, beautiful because of its age — much like the Provo Tabernacle or the buildings on Temple Square. It’s a little curious, too, like the slanting benches, but the oddities make it all the more wonderful, glorious in its distinctiveness.
Isaiah 9: 6 “For unto Us a Child is born, unto Us a Son is given: and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”
I came home from that concert so excited to pass on the language of it. The late-teen-or-early-twenties guy standing on the other side of my sister (down from us on the slant of the bench) had looked at us strangely as we sang out. It was like you could read his mind on his face: How do they know all the words to this? And I determined right then that my kids are going to grow up familiar with the “Hallelujah Chorus.” They’re going to grow up with Luke 2 and all the other beautiful passages of King James. I’ll be okay with them texting chiseled-down monstrosities of words if they can also read verses of scripture without stumbling on the syntax.
Some things that are old are beautiful and worth keeping. They’re also as fragile as old books, in danger of crumbling apart if we neglect them, but I think the fragility is part of what prompts our reverence for them. Old languages are dying out at a sickening rate, but the language of scripture needs to be preserved and passed down, at least in my opinion. It loses part of its fulness when it’s changed into modern terms.
Maybe all of these thoughts are why this scripture verse leapt out at me this week:
2 Nephi 9:51 “Hearken diligently unto me, and remember the words which I have spoken; and come unto the Holy One of Israel, and feast upon that which perisheth not, neither can be corrupted, and let your soul delight in fatness.”
Isn’t it awesome? Feasting on words and delighting in the fatness of them. The syntax and semantics — the form, feel and meaning snug together, fuller and fatter and deeper than either syntax or semantics would be alone. And feeding our souls with the richness of the words of scripture seems to be exactly how we find the spirit of Christmas, just like Charlie Brown and George Frideric Handel.
It’s no wonder he has us repeating “Hallelujah!” twenty-three times through that chorus. “Hallelujah” itself is the epitome of it all, a beautiful old word that means “praise God” but has so much more feeling to it than “praise” alone suggests. “Hallelujah” is a word you want to shout. It’s a word you want to sing out loud and strong.
What do you think? What is it that makes some words more beautiful and powerful than others? What is it about Luke 2 and other Christmas scripture that inspires you?
*UPDATE: a friend of mine emailed me right after I posted to share this horrible news about the Provo Tabernacle; I loved that building and am ready to cry right now. Apparently buildings are fragile, too.