I’m going to have to admit that my thunder has been somewhat stolen by the excellent writeup on the back of our sheet music and also by the Chorale member’s comment last week about the two meanings of the phrase “rough unforgiving wood.” But I’ve been so intrigued, and so touched, by this selection that I decided to go ahead and write about it anyway. I would encourage you, though, to read the sheet music material if you have not already done so.
Interestingly enough, the one double meaning that I had not considered, but which is mentioned on the sheet music, is that of Mary: “Intrigued by the parallel images of a mother embracing her child at birth and at death, Phil asked his mother, Laurie, to write a Christmas text that was equal parts lullaby and funeral dirge.” Of course. It’s so obvious when you think about it. Who’s the speaker? The earthly mother of Jesus. We know she was there at the cross, by the way, as this is mentioned in the Gospels, specifically in the Gospel of John:
When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. (John 19:26-27 NIV)
I think it may be fair to say that the “walls” in our text are also referring to two different places: the stable and the tomb. There is some evidence that the place where Jesus was born was a grotto, or cave. The Church of the Nativity is (at least by tradition) built over a cave, and the (again traditional) location of the tomb is a cave. Since Laurie Gauger mentions “walls” at the beginning and the end of her poem, it’s likely that she had this double meaning in mind.
What about the “wrapped in lengths of linen” lines? That idea merits a little exploration and explanation. I grew up with the old King James Version of the Bible, and here’s the relevant verse from the Gospel of Luke chapter 2:
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in the manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7 KJV)
The practice of swaddling, often with bands of cloth, had a couple of purposes. One was to keep the baby safe by preventing him/her from rolling over, scratching him/herself, etc. Another was to keep the baby’s limbs straight. A third was to act as a transition from the snug womb. These same strips of cloth were used at the end of life in many cultures also. Thus the verse:
Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. (John 19:40 NIV)
The “rough, unforgiving wood” line is another example of carefully-chosen wording. That description reminds us that the manger wasn’t some pretty little item but an animals’ feeding tough, made for utility and not beauty. The same is true of the crosses that the Romans used for crucifixions. There would have been absolutely no reason for them to make any effort to smooth the surfaces or soften the edges of something to be used as an instrument of death. I’m afraid the beautiful crosses we see in churches and other religious settings are far from the truth of the matter. While I don’t want to criticize these displays personally, I will allow myself the liberty of quoting a former pastor of mine, Dr. Mark Dever, who explained that there were no crosses in the auditorium of Capitol Hill Baptist Church because a faithful representation of the actual cross of Christ would be too gruesome for public display.
One last set of parallels: sleep. The baby sleeps in the manger, the crucified Christ sleeps in the tomb. That makes a total of five pairings in the beautifully-crafted yet very brief poem. Truly masterful!
One last point: Gauger’s use of a verse from the book of Philippians as the center of her poem. While this verse may not usually be thought of as referring to Christmas, it actually encapsulates the whole meaning of the incarnation in its brief lines. I would encourage you to read the entire passage here if you want to get the full picture. (The link is to a Bible website that includes multiple translations; I’m particularly fond of The Message, a modern translation by Eugene Peterson, which I’ve referenced.)
Well, as usual, I’ve gone on for quite awhile. If you’d like to get a little more info about our composer, though, I’d encourage you to read the following (rather long) excerpt from a (very long) interview with the director of St. Olaf’s Choir, Anton Armstrong, by someone named Guy Vollen:
GV: That is exciting. And I notice you’re programming a piece by a student composer. Would you like to say anything about “And You Will Sleep” and the context of the composition?
AA: Yes. Philip [Biedenbender] is a senior in the choir, and you’ll also see him featured on this concert if you’re able to attend; he’s one of our two student pianists. He’s a very gifted young man. He actually approached me last spring and said, “I want to write a piece for the Christmas festival,” and to his credit he worked and had a piece ready for me when we resumed school in the fall. We went through a couple of periods of revision. First of all, I’m not a composer, but I will take the piece, I will sing through part of it, I will play it at the piano, and I thought, it feels good under my fingers. Vocally, there were some points where I asked him to do some rewriting where it was too complicated, and I think he was trying to do text painting, but I said it’s maybe too complicated. Less is more sometimes. Well, he found that balance, and there was a portion in the first version: most of the text is by his mother, and then they had inserted text from Scripture. Well, the first text that they used, the music changed, and it just didn’t work. I said, this sounds like two different pieces right here, and he said, “I know. I’m not happy with it.” He said, “We have another possibility,” and this was the verse from Philippians that we later used. And all of a sudden it became a cohesive entity.
What I appreciate is, his mom came in and shared: the text of this piece speaks of “The walls of a stable are not worthy of the King. You come, little one, born of the songs of angels, echoes of prophets, and the life of a strange star. Do not cry, though you must lie on this rough, unforgiving wood, wrapped in lengths of linen, and you will sleep.” And she goes into this text from Philippians from that. But she came to talk to the choir, and it’s a paradox: the “unforgiving wood” is not just the imagery of a manger, it also refers to the imagery of the cross, which Christ was killed on, and the linen is not just the swaddling cloth but also the linens that wrap the body of Jesus afterward. So this image of this paradox–he’s young, twenty-one, twenty-two years old–he really captured this.
This is an emerging talent and he is a very humble young man. Very gifted but very humble and very thoughtful. (from “St. Olaf Choir in Wichita: An Interview with Conductor Anton Armstrong”)