One day an angel here on this earth
Alison M. Robertson
© Words and Music, Mrs Alison M. Robertson, c/o SCM Canterbury Press Ltd., originally published in Life and Work November 2001.
Art work by Ingebjørg Smith
Angels and Families are our theme for today. During the current pandemic, human angels have appeared out of nowhere and stepped forward to support individuals in sorrow or need. And families, especially those feeling broken and divided, have managed to draw on reserves they did not know they had, by reason of kinship, shared experiences, and profound love for each other.
This made me think of today’s carol, One Day an Angel, which I was commissioned to write and compose for the Church of Scotland magazine Life and Work (November 2001). St Luke’s Gospel, chapters 1 and 2, gives an electrifying account of the birth of Jesus. W.L. Lorimer’s The New Testament in Scots (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2012) is my favourite version.
The Angel is Gabriel, God’s special spirit messenger. The Family is made up of a young girl called Mary, her fiancé Joseph, Mary’s much older cousin Elisabeth (Elspeth) and her husband Zacharias (Zacharie). All four have a deep bond of love, as family, but also through sharing in the Hebrew faith and worship of the Lord; a faith that was centuries in the making. When an angel visits three of them, they know how to listen and receive their startling messages - and two babies! All four were Key Workers with God in bringing about the birth of Jesus.
Ingebjørg Smith, Life and Work’s commissioned artist, devised an Angel and an everyday Mary for the carol. ‘Cave’, rather than ‘stable’, a factual alternative, gave me an eye-rhyme with ‘have’. The music is a cross between a rocking carol and a country dance, the rocking A-A-G-A extending outwards as the new Mum tries to settle her bairn. Sleep comes in the last two bars. The carol consists of four equal verses of 126.96.36.199, in 120 words, only 20 of which exceed one syllable in length. Here, the short words carry the story. The longer words carry the deeper significances.
- One day an angel here on this earth
spoke of God’s presence coming to birth.
Mary was listening; humbly her heart
sang at the Word God chose to impart.
- Mary gave birth in Bethlehem’s cave,
blessed by the child God chose her to have.
Love was the reason God had become
close to his mother, far from her home.
- Out in the fields a heavenly throng
broke through the dark with resonant song.
Shepherds, who saw God’s glory by night,
sped on their way to worship the Light.
- Jesus, your Spirit, shining with care,
Speaks to the world you treasure and share.
Come with the human touch of your birth;
Find in our hearts your home on this earth.
Verse 1. Coming signifies origin in God, and a place of arrival (in Mary, on earth). Presence identifies God as a real provable human being, Jesus, who is thereby, and for ever, a blood relation of the human race or family. This makes each of us a sister or brother of Jesus, giving every person on earth a family to belong to. Zacharie and Mary both listened humbly to their angel. Zacharie doubted at first, Mary questioned, but was told, “nocht is onpossible wi God.”
“Faur be it frae me to conter God’s will,” she said. “Lat it een gae wi me as ye say.”
Verse 2. In Music at Midnight (Penguin, 2013) about the orator, poet, priest and hymn-writer George Herbert, John Drury shows how Herbert, Donne and their 17th century friends drew the Church in England away from its unyielding codes of belief into an understanding that the nature of God is Love. That insight resonates now with Love was the reason for Jesus’ birth.
Verse 3. The resonant song of the heavenly host still reverberates 2000 years later, as does Mary’s Magnificat, which erupted from her innermost soul as she stepped over Elspeth’s doorstep. Her song has been kept alive by that intangible mystery called Christian worship - the two-way connection between listening individuals and the loving heart of God, in tune with each other.
Verse 4. Treasure implies value and care, not ownership. The human touch that Jesus brings inspires our attitudes and actions towards others. Today’s prayer, here in verse 4, needs the pray-ers to listen, and to do; just like the Family to whom the Angel came.