Thursday, December 22, 2011

This and That Thursday: Three Lessons from a Carol

Welcome to This and That Thursday.

I thought a Christmas-themed post would be most appropriate, being as its three days till Christmas. Don't you think? The big day is coming fast, but to my kids, three more days seems like forever. We still have to wait, wait, wait ...

That’s what the Advent season is all about--reflecting on the coming King, remembering how long His people waited for the promised Messiah. With that in mind, I’ve been meditating on an Advent carol called, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” Ah, it’s water to the soul. I love it for many spiritual reasons, but as a writer, I also love its rich images and emotional impact.

Just for fun, I’m going to take a look at a few of the awesome skills the author of this hymn used to make it magnificent. Many of the greatest writing lessons I’ve learned have been from simply studying the masters’ works, so hopefully this will provide useful tools for your journey.

Call it an Advent literary analysis. We'll look at one stanza at a time.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

What strikes me first is the cadence. In both my fiction and non-fiction, it’s easy to blurt out words without rhythm. But sculpting beautiful sound into my writing (or at least a purposeful sound) is like a gift to the readers’ inner voice. A pattern of beat also adds to the story’s depth. This poem rings of an almost eerie awe over the indescribable gift our eternal, almighty, holy God has given by descending to earth. The rhythm adds to that feel, draws us in, so we more clearly see the truth it conveys.

Lesson 1: Cadence enhances our points and makes reading our works delightful.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Repeated irony flows through this stanza.

The king of kings—born of Mary.
Lord of lords—human vesture
Give himself for heavenly food.

This teaches me the power of irony. The Christian life is riddled with the stuff! Love your enemies. The first will be last. Die to live. The culture would never tell you to love your enemies, be last to succeed, or give up your life for another. These truths are otherworldly. That’s why they are so powerful. As Christian authors we have the privilege of communicating these heavenly truths. And they resonate especially because they so contrast the world.

Lesson 2: The many ironies in the Christian faith provide great material for our uniquely Christian offerings.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

Concrete images! My college literature teacher drilled this into my head. Studying poetry, we discovered that the greatest poems don’t flow with theoretical truths, but rather utilize real images (or a single image) to show the truth. The author of this hymn does this with immaculate precision.

The image of the angelic host on its way to earth as Christ the Light is born visually impacts my imagination. Can’t you just see it? The use of precise words also shines. The angels come from heaven—“the realms of endless day.”

And then the powers of hell vanish as the Light clears the darkness away. Clear, compact, concise.

But more than just stirring the imagination, these masterfully etched images bring home the impact of Christ’s incarnation in ways a more straightforward telling could not.

Lesson 3: Concrete images! For greatest impact, use them whenever possible.

At His feet the six wing├Ęd seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High

I’ll leave this one for you to analyze. What lessons do you learn from this stanza or the others? Do you read the "greats" in order to enhance your writing skilss? Share your thoughts!

Merry Christmas, my writing friends!


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