Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Caroling the Gospel XII: I Wonder as I Wander

[NOTE:  This is from a 12-part series I did on another blog.  Hence the tardiness.  I promise, it was timely when I first wrote it.  The rest of the series is available here.  Enjoy!]

This carol--one of my favorites--has an unusual backstory.  In 1933, a folklorist/singer collected a song fragment in Appalachian North Carolina--he heard a little girl sing it, and after asking her to sing it several more times, he used the song fragment to compose "I Wonder as I Wander."  Perhaps that's why the song always sounds best when sung by a female voice with little or no instrumental or choral backing, and the best backing usually has a bluegrass feel to it.  It is a solitary song (hence the use of the first person singular) and the haunting melody works well unadorned by musical accoutrements.  I really like the Jewel/Sarah McLachlan version, which strips the song down to just the melody with a single subtle vocal harmony, but I can't seem to find the video online.  Joanie does an ok job though.

I wonder as I wander out under the sky,
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die.
For poor on'ry people like you and like I...
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

When Mary birthed Jesus 'twas in a cow's stall,
With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all.
But high from God's heaven a star's light did fall,
And the promise of ages it then did recall.
Alternate Lines:  
The blessing of Christmas from Heaven did fall
And the weary world woke to the Savior's call
If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing,
A star in the sky, or a bird on the wing,
Or all of God's angels in heav'n for to sing,
He surely could have it, 'cause he was the King.
The second and third verses are not terribly important, at least in my opinion.  You get the usual references to the narrative details of the nativity story--animals, a star, Mary, etc.  (Luke 2) I actually had only heard the alternate lines about the 'Savior's call', but I definitely prefer the original version that mentions the prophecies foretelling His birth.  Indeed, with the language 'the promise of ages', it could even be referring back to the first promise of redemption.  (See Genesis 3:15) The third verse is pretty much a throwaway.  It mentions Christ's kingship, which is great, but the rest is just hypothetical and silly.

The first verse is where the real action is.  The narrator, in a mournful, minor tone, is wandering and wondering about Christ's incarnation and death.  He came to die.  Not just to be born and set a good example and teach us how to be nice to each other.  He came to die.  (See Hebrews 2:14)

The verse continues its meditation by reflecting that this death was for us.  The adjective used here varies a bit from version to version--some say he died for 'poor lowly people', some say 'poor lonely people', some 'poor ordinary people' . . . but I think my favorite is 'poor on'ry (ornery) people'
ornery: (adj.) ugly and unpleasant in disposition or temper; stubborn; low or vile; inferior or common; ordinary (a contraction of 'ordinary', meaning commonplace, of poor quality, coarse, ugly, and eventually mean, cantankerous).  Synonyms include: belligerent, combative, contemptible, contrary, crabby, cranky, difficult, grouchy, ignoble, ill-tempered, intractable, nasty, obstinate, quarrelsome, rebellious, rotten, sour, stubborn, surly, testy, unfriendly, unmanageable, vicious...
We're not just sad or humble or run-of-the-mill. We're unpleasant.  We're stubborn and stiff necked, just like our spiritual forebears.  (Nehemiah 9:29-30; Jeremiah 5:23; Romans 2:5)  And that's not even the worst of it--we're filthy sinners one and all.  But at least the song has the courage to call us 'ornery'--to admit that we're not exactly a likable bunch.  And that's why the narrator is so mystified by the gospel.  Why would a holy God want to save . . . us?  It doesn't make sense. (I Corinthians 1:18)  We're sinners.  Who in their right mind would die for sinners?  (Romans 5:6-8)  The (post)modern answer is to say 'Of course Christ died for me.  I am awesome' or some variation thereon.  God loves you and saves you because He needs you, or you have a unique contribution to make.  The reason is in you.

Which is an understandable mistake.  After all, God did choose each Christian.  (Ephesians 1:4-5; I Thessalonians 1:4; II Thessalonians 2:13-14)  But this selection was not based on anything we had done. He chose us because of Himself.  (Romans 9:10-16) He loved us first.  (I John 4:19)  We're so used to having a reason we can understand, so when we see one chosen and another rejected, we assume it must be because of some difference in worth or quality of the people.  But the choice rests wholly in God and His character.  It is not arbitrary, though our lack of information and understanding may make it seem so.

Still, we are not to question God.  We are simply to celebrate His mercy in choosing us.  And for those who are not yet Christians, this incredible mercy should cause us to cry out to Him for salvation. 

I thought this carol was a fitting way to wrap up the Twelve Gospel Carols of Christmas.  After meditating on the miracle of the incarnation and the wonder of the gospel, it seems appropriate to just sit and meditate on the vast and incomprehensible mystery of God's incredible and inexplicable mercy in sending His son to die for sinners.  I will close with a line from another wonderful hymn (though not Christmas carol, as such):
My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought / my sin not in part bu the whole / is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more / Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, Oh my soul!
To read a bonus post on the carol 'Some Children See Him', click here.

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