In his latest book entitled Wonder Reborn: Creating Sermons On Hymns, Music and Poetry, Thomas Troeger describes the effect the hymns he learned as a child had upon his imagination. While Troeger was raised in the northeast, his mother came from South Carolina. She often complained that churches in the north did not sing the hymns she knew. When they did, they did not sing them with the same warmth.
Troeger writes that this difference was typified for him by the contrast between the two hymns In the Garden and O God of Bethel by Whose Hand: “As a child I recognized immediately the difference in sound, and with a child’s sense of knowing, I sensed two different musical characterizations of God in the contrasting tunes and rhythms.” In the Garden always made Troeger picture his great-aunt’s flower garden. While the hymn O God of Bethel By Whose Hand made him think of the New England pilgrims. The contrast between these two fascinated Troeger, who could not figure out how they fit with the pictures he imagined of the biblical stories.
In his book Troeger cites the research of religious sociologist Robert Wuthnow, which reveals the importance of childhood experience on our spiritual lives. According to Wuthnow: “Looking at the data the childhood experience that matters most is not attendance at services but the subliminal contact with the holy that comes through hymns and other religious music, pictures, Bibles, crosses, candles, and other sacred objects.” This observation is enough to make any good Protestant wince–especially one whose children progressed far enough in the AWANA program to earn the Timothy award. Wasn’t the Reformation precisely a reaction against this sort of thing?
Yet as someone who grew up in a religionless home, I can testify to the truth of what Wuthnow says. My earliest memories of an experience of transcendence and my longing for God inevitably revolve around Christmas. The music of Christmas captivated me, along with the Christian images on the few Christmas cards we received and by the Christmas story itself. I stared at those pictures for hours, meditating on their meaning and wishing that I had been alive to see those ancient events unfold. I gazed into the night sky hoping to see some faint glimmer of the Christmas star. I played with the figures of our nativity set, something that was more of a cultural artifact than an object of devotion in our household, and imagined myself traveling with the magi as they traversed “field and fountain, moor and mountain.”
No wonder, of all the varieties of the church’s musical forms, it is the carols that I love the most. I loved them all growing up. But I loved the old ones the best. Indeed, my favorite may be one of the most ancient. Its words, attributed to the Roman poet Aurelius Prudentius and dating back to the fifth century, still have the power to transport my imagination:
Of the Father’s love begotten,
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore!
As a child those ancient carols sounded to me like something from another world, an echo heaven come down to earth. They still do…evermore and evermore.