music by Peter Warlock, with words by Bruce Blunt,
and performed by Polyphony
When He is King we will give Him a King's gifts,
Myrrh for its sweetness, and gold for a crown,
Beautiful robes", said the young girl to Joseph,
Fair with her first-born on Bethlehem Down.
Bethlehem Down is full of the starlight,
Winds for the spices, and stars for the gold,
Mary for sleep, and for lullaby music,
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold.
When He is King they will clothe Him in grave-sheets,
Myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown,
He that lies now in the white arms of Mary,
Sleeping so lightly on Bethlehem Down
Here He has peace and a short while for dreaming,
Close-huddled oxen to keep him from cold,
Mary for love, and for lullaby music,
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem Down.
I don't think this carol will ever fail to break my heart when I hear it.
We all want wonderful things for our children. In the first few minutes of the euphoric rush that follows the delivery of a new baby, every mother knows with an other-worldly certainty that her baby is the most beautiful; the most perfect of all.
Indeed, Mary had been promised it by an angel:
He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest:
and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:
And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever:
and of his kingdom there shall be no end.
In this piece, the poet Bruce Blunt perfectly captures that rush of new-motherhood: It has clearly never occurred to Mary that anything terrible could ever happen to her child. God had chosen her because of her devout obedience. He would keep them all safe: the promises would be fulfilled.
But there was a bigger plan in place for them all-- especially for that tiny little baby. His mother would see him through the highest highs, and watch him perform miracles. Later, she would suffer the ultimate loss, as she witnessed his tortured death.
This carol paints a perfect, peaceful scene between two loving new parents, during that wonderful time when it feels like there is only the three of you in the entire world.
Yet the future is clearly foreshadowed, and what is to come hangs over the vignette with a terrible foreboding.
Yes, Christ was born to save us... but the humanity of this piece illuminates how terribly difficult it must have been to endure such sacrifice.