The year was 1933, deep into the Great Depression. In Murphy, NC, a small Appalachian town, a group of evangelicals seeking to raise funds had been ordered out of town. At one point before leaving:
“A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform attached to the automobile. She began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievable dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins…. But, best of all, she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing. She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song.”
John Jacob Niles captured that line and the melody and later published. Though of somewhat dubious origin regarding originality, his version has prevailed.
This song captures for me a memory, repeated annually in my youth and especially as I would acolyte at the midnight Christmas Eve service in a small, Episcopal mission church in a SW Virginia town. Imagine with me. At the front of the Nave, just before the rail is a large, white pine Chrismon tree, decorated with gold colored ornaments, many with needle point on a pure, which background, depicting various parts of the Gospel story. The tree is lit with white lights. Holy Communion is over, the lights of the Nave are extinguished, and I have passed the flame from the Christmas candle passed to each congregant who now has a lit taper. Out of the silence, another folk song is sung: Silent Night. The congregation is dismissed to process out into the dark night, in silence, under the stars, into the mystery of Christmas.
Why? Why did Jesus come for to die?
I am a mountain person … outdoors under the sky and especially at night under the stars. I see all around me and I wonder. Why?
The haunting melody in a minor key always catches me on the word “wander”. Over the years I find that I have no real home. In the lines of one song it is expressed like this, “I never meant to leave, my intention was to stay … but there is nothing they could do to slow this ole freight train down.” My temptation has always been to respond by wandering. Today I know that the answer to my wandering is the second line of this song: “Jesus my Savior did come for to die” and all that it means. My wandering, I now understand, is a journey home to Jesus for this one ornery soul.
The word “wonder” takes me into mystery. Pope John Paul II in his poem, “The Stream” from The Roman Triptych, sets the stage in this way:
The undulating wood slopes down
to the rhythm of mountain streams.
To me, this rhythm is revealing You,
the Primordial Word.
Hear the invitation into the mystery as expressed through word and music in “I wonder as I wander”, as sung by Audrey Assad.
1. Pen, Ron. “I Wonder as I Wander”. A Kentucky Christmas (George Ella Lyon, editor). University Press of Kentucky (2003), p200–201.