When a new life begins♦
(for a poem, as well as a child)
Have you ever heard of a poem called For So the Children Come? I encountered it for the first time in a musical setting during the annual Twelfth Night concert presented by Voces Novae et Antiquae. It begins:
For so the children come
And so they have been coming.
Always in the same way they come
born of the seed of man and woman.
And it continues with the thought that even though “no angels herald their beginnings” and no wise men travel to visit them, “each night a child is born is a holy night.”
I can’t quote the entire poem, since I haven’t obtained permission from the copyright holder, but you can read it on the website of Elizabeth Alexander, the composer who created the musical setting.
The poem was written by Sophia Lyon Fahs, (1876-1978). I had never heard of her poem, but I discovered it’s rather widely known when I looked her up on the web. Fahs originally set out to be a Presbyterian missionary and became a key figure in the development of the modern Unitarian church.
Elizabeth Alexander was born in 1962, just four years before Sophia Lyon Fahs turned 90, and she, too, seems to possess some ability to develop and adapt. Her website indicates she is taking advantage of modern technology by self-publishing printed versions of her work. Like most writers, I tend to view self-publishing with skepticism. But it’s a smart thing to do when a composer is already receiving performances and attracting a following. The computerization of the publishing process makes self-publishing a practical option, and the composer can pocket the money the publisher and the distributor usually receive.
Alexander’s setting begins with a forward drive that matches the way I hear the poem’s opening lines in my head. Her music intensifies a good poem that expresses a great thought.
Why did it affect me?
I heard plenty of wonderful music between Thanksgiving and Twelfth Night, as I usually do. I had heard Piffaro’s premiere of Kile Smith’s Vespers just the night before I attended the Voces Novae concert and I was still contemplating the effect of that highly successful blending of Renaissance instruments and 21st- Century sensibility. But For So the Children Come was the most personally moving piece I encountered. It was so moving, in fact, that it made me wonder why it affected me so.
Since I’m about as areligious and secular as anyone can be, our annual year-end bash is, for me, a mix of family warmth, general goodwill, and the ancient impulse to create a center of warmth, light and abundance in the midst of darkness and cold. Sophia Lyon Fahs’s poem touched me, I think, because it was a reminder that the central theme of the Christian holiday is a fundamental human experience: the birth of a child.
Christmas as a children’s holiday
In the tradition I grew up in, Christmas is primarily a children’s holiday. When you’re a child, it’s essentially a second birthday party. When you become an adult, the important presents— the presents that receive the most thought and attention— are the presents you give your children. People who don’t have children tend to adopt the children of friends and relatives so they, too, can run around shopping for a gift for a child. Some of the most treasured presents I received as a boy were the books I got from a childless aunt who shared my fascination with the printed page.
Sophia Lyon Fahs was a religious scholar and educator, but she was also the mother of five children. She knew what she was talking about when she said fathers and mothers “feel glory in the sight of a new life beginning.” And our ingrained response to birth is, ultimately, a basic, baked-in-the-genes affirmation of life.
The birth at the center of the Christian Christmas story is supposed to be the origin of someone special, with all the myths that generally cluster around the births of legendary figures. But Sophia Fahs’s text transforms it into something universal. The musical version of For So the Children Come communicates all the “true meaning of Christmas” this particular parishioner needs.
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