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The Star of Bethlehem or Nuclear Missiles

A famous Christmas song was born from the horror of a threatened nuclear extinction running up against the story of the birth of Jesus.

It was during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. Noel Regney had seen death as a member of the French Resistance, in which he had been wounded. A record producer asked him to write a holiday song, but he didn’t really want to. He explained: “Christmas had become so commercial. But this was the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

Then, “en route to my home, I saw two mothers with their babies in strollers. The little angels were looking at each other and smiling. All of a sudden, my mood was extraordinary.” He said that the innocence of the two babes reminded him of newborn lambs. Hence, his opening: “Said the night wind to the little lamb…”

Arriving home, he jotted down the lyrics and his wife/collaborator, Gloria Shayne, wrote the music. Later she recalled his beautiful lyrics and explained: “We couldn’t sing it, though; it broke us up. We cried. Our little song broke us up. You must realize there was a threat of nuclear war at that time.”

The poignancy and, yes, the horror present in the conflation of the Star of Bethlehem with a nuclear missile is rare indeed for a Christmas song, but Regney and Shayne didn’t flinch in the composition. When you see a star with a tail as big as a kite, don’t flinch. Even a shepherd boy may instruct a king. (Otherwise, thank goodness for shepherd boys. May their kind spread to all corners of the Earth!)

This week, the town of Bethlehem in the West Bank, where the baby Jesus was born, will have no Christmas celebrations. But they will pray for peace, as Noel Regney’s song called for in 1962. Sometimes the greatest hope for the world runs smack-dab into the greatest horror, testing whether our souls are truly alive.

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Said the night wind to the little lamb,

‘Do you see what I see?

‘Way up in the sky, little lamb

‘Do you see what I see?

‘A star, a star, dancing in the night

‘With a tail as big as a kite

‘With a tail as big as a kite.’

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy,

‘Do you hear what I hear?

‘Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy,

‘Do you hear what I hear?

‘A song, a song, high above the trees

‘With a voice as big as the sea

‘With a voice as big as the sea.’

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king,

‘Do you know what I know?

‘In your palace warm, mighty king,

‘Do you know what I know?

A Child, a Child shivers in the cold

‘Let us bring Him silver and gold

‘Let us bring Him silver and gold.’

Said the king to the people everywhere,

‘Listen to what I say:

‘Pray for peace, people everywhere!

‘Listen to what I say:

‘The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night,

‘He will bring us goodness and light

‘He will bring us goodness and light.’”

Some thoughts on this text. Notice that this is a dialogue—the wind speaks to the lamb, the lamb to the boy, the boy to the king, and the king to the people. “Listen to the wind.” It starts with a real image of starlight—but which, in the mind of the writer at the time, might have been the threat of nuclear war as well. Then it goes to an image which is less real—"a song high above the trees, with a voice as big as the sea.” It was this voice that moved the shepherd boy, but only as told to him by the lamb.

“Listen to the lambs a-crying, O shepherd, feed my sheep,” says the African-American Spiritual. The shepherd boy, like David, speaks to the king; like the boy who told the people that the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes, he is fearless. “Do you know what I know?” That is a question, that is different than “do you hear what I hear, “ or “see.” This question is a conviction of the king—not a denunciation, but a conviction.

“A child shivers in the cold.” Every king, however, knows that. “Let us bring him silver and gold.” Why? As Ray McGovern often says, the original meaning of the term “justice” as seen in its various Hebrew and Greek roots, is to care for the poor, the afflicted, “the insulted and injured,” and that they are due that which all people are due, despite their condition.

When the king speaks to the people, his authority does not come from his office, but from his recognition of, and submission to, the truth of what the shepherd boy—like John the Baptist speaking to Herod—tells the king. The king therefore instructs the people to pray for peace everywhere. With the new Child born will come the light.