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Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Holy City - A Christmas Music Countdown

"Jerusalem, Jerusalem!
Sing for the night is o'er
Hosanna in the highest
Hosanna forevermore!"

Since it’s Sunday, let’s think about the reason for the season and the reason we play the songs we do. We don’t like Christmas to come too early, we say; that premature celebration destroys the “magic.”

For devout Christians, the “magic” is year-round. There are hundreds and hundreds of hymns praising Jesus and God. There are certain hymns, like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” that specifically deal with the birth of Christ and the celebration of Christmas (which some say, in truth, occurred in the early Spring, and others, in the Fall). We adopted the early Christians’ practice of celebrating The Lord’s birth on Dec. 25th, on the ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia. The Roman soldiers drank and caroused. Being drunk, they were too inebriated to harass the Christians on that night.

For the early Christians, it was a solemn holiday, even though it was a birthday celebration. There were still Christians who remembered how he died. In any case, they didn’t dare make a lot of noise, blowing trumpets and so forth, or they’d alert those drunken Romans that something was going on.

One hymn that made it onto the Mormon Tabernacle’s Choir’s song list on one Christmas album, “The Spirit of Christmas” was “The Holy City.” Once considered a Christmas favorite, the entire album is out of print, one of the MoTAB albums that is out of print. You can even still buy vinyl records of their music, but not this album.

Did politics play a role in forcing this album off the market? MoTAB was not the only group to record it; the Robert Shaw chorale also sang it. I found it, but had to go through 25 pages of Google before I got to it, and then it was on a general worship album, not a Christmas album. There is a download verion of MoTAB’s “The Holy City.” Originally, I had a cassette tape version, which wore out. Even the copy I made wore out. By the time I realized there was a CD version, it was too late; it was out of print.

“The Holy City” is not your typical Christmas hymn, and certainly not a Christmas carol. Only by intimation does it refer to Jesus, and that reference is to His death, not His birth. The song talks about the New Jersualem promised in the Book of Revelations. The singer dreams he is standing in the Old City beside the now-vanished Temple. Everything is dark and dreary; no one is singing. The shadow of the Cross starts to loom over Jerusalem. Then in a burst of light, the Old City passes away and the dreamer sees the New Jerusalem.

The New Jerusalem is Christ’s gift to us; our Christmas present, if you will. That’s the reason it should be a staple of every Christian music-lover’s Christmas music collection. If you can find it or download it.

It says something about our times that this song is no longer available in solid form. At best, you must order it singly. The present Jerusalem is a beleaguered city, indeed. Jerusalem stands at the crossroads of a holy war that is on the brink of erupting, whether politicians would have it so or not. The decision is not theirs to make. But it is not the physical city that is at issue; it’s the city’s soul that is in danger, and ours. When the clouds of doubt are removed and all is revealed, those who are worthy will see Jerusalem as it was meant to be, but couldn’t be on Earth. Only God could make such a city and only those who believe in Him will see it and be able to enter.

We often wonder what Heaven is like, and “The Holy City” gives us a musical vision of what it’s like. The tension in this march-like song builds to a stirring crescendo, evoking the sorrow and then the Christmas-like wonder as the gift – the eternal city – is revealed.

The Robert Shaw Chorale version features an operatic choir and an orchestra. RSC tones down the march-like quality and gives the song feeling and wonder. This is a very credible version, available on “The Heritage of Hymns” CD by Sony Classic. This CD also contains some other very familiar hymns such as “Rock of Ages,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and my childhood favorite, “Bless This House.” Although it’s not a Christmas album, if you believe in the reason for the season, definitely seek this CD out.

Still, I miss the MoTAB’s version of “The Holy City.” There are no soloists; the baritone section serves as the main voice of the narrator. The star of this show, though, is the Tabernacle organ. This instrument is a marvelous piece of machinery. If you ever get out to Salt Lake City, you should try to hear the Choir in performance. Their Tabernacle is said to be acoustically perfect. The choir’s singing and the organ work are the reason I wore out all my tapes and have searched (in vain) for a replacement.

This problem also speaks to the difficulty of MP3 downloads. Sometimes, in searching for only what you already know, you can miss an incredible gem. MoTAB included such Christmas chestnuts as Silent Night, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and O Come All Ye Faithful. Had I only wanted those numbers I’d have missed “The Holy City” and some other treasures in their store like “Shepherd Maids.”

Whichever version you select (and can find), it will be an early musical Christmas present.

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