I composed When Heaven Came Down as I was preparing for Christmas Eve Candlelight Communion service at First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga. I love the memories of my service there and cherish the people in my heart forever. Even so, we love the saints from each station of service. Parishioners are not commodities to speak of as groups. You are individuals, unique souls, to give thanks for, to shepherd to the throne of God. From Soldiers and Military Families in Germany, seminary students in India, my days of seminary (as a student and then acting president) at Knox, internship at Coral Ridge, a core group in Kansas, then in Savannah, and, now, in Weddington, North Carolina; to university students in Albania, and our churches, seminaries, and military units in the United States, to faculty members, staff, and students at RTS, now Erskine Theological Seminary, we are filled with gratitude for the opportunity to have ministered the incomparable Gospel of Jesus Christ to you. But I write this little Christmas epistle to tell the story of a song, a song about wonder. So, to the song.
WHEN HEAVEN CAME DOWN was created in three movements. The composition begins with my memories of Christmas Eve worship—”Once in Royal David’s City,” festive church bells, children’s voices in the cold, the narthex filled with people in overcoats, children impatiently, delightfully fidgeting from the building suspense of the first present from St. Nick. It’s all like an oil painting that suddenly comes alive. The painted figures begin to move within the frame. The light is real. And in my mind’s eye, I am drawn to a man in a coat, just outside of the light, a man in the shadows. “Who is he? Why isn’t he with the others?” The mysterious silhouetted person appears to be watching from the sidewalk in front of the church. My eyes return to the church as if to disregard the person in the shadows. But as I look once more at the solitary figure looking into the lighted sanctuary, I realize its identity. I am the person. My gaze, that is, the person in the shadows, on the sidewalk, in front of the church, is interrupted by a northerly breeze that causes “me” to lift my shoulders, thereby nudging the houndstooth coat closer to my face. The person—that, is, I—stands not as a contented observer, but as one who would prefer to come into the festive gathering. All of this I see, I feel, I hear beneath a cacophony of Christmas sounds, and I can see my breath in the chilled air of that sacred night.
So, I called that first movement, Prélude à la nativité.
The second movement is the heart of the piece. Heaven Came Down is meant to be as still as a candle flickering light and forming shadows in a crude cave in a faraway village in the middle of nowhere. The chorus of the song signals the enduring message of the miracle: “O the glory, this wondrous story; ancient and yet it remains forever new.” I have always been appreciative of my accompaniest, Cindy Gibbs. Her talented and touching interpretation of her part in the song is particularly memorable. When she sings as Mary’s voice I am deeply moved. Her voice has an authenticity that awakens my own gratitude to the young girl who literally birthed God, God-in-the-flesh, for humanity. I composed the second movement of “When Heaven Came Down” for guitar, violin, and duet. I wanted to convey the inconceivable wonder of an eternity wrapped in swaddling clothes. This is the moment that splits the atom of history: Still is the moment, deep are the thoughts; God as an infant; Eden restored, already and not yet, through the virgin-born son of his adoptive carpenter father. Or, as John Donne put it, “immensity cloistered in Thy dear womb.”
The third movement’s musical phrases, like the themes of our yesterdays that we store away in the secret, untouched places of our lives, are meant to carry the listener into the outer reaches of the universe, a soul in flight, an ethereal spirit following the Star, to arrive at the place you always dreamed of: home. I named the third movement, La Nativité Ouverture. It is a classical reprise of earlier musical phrases in the piece, pointing us to the Second Advent, the crescendo of the Creator’s covenantal plan to restore heaven and earth to a home without sin or sorrow.
I have chills as I think of this central Gospel truth. I feel now even as I felt when I wrote the piece: “I am undone and a man of unclean lips.” And yet this is why He came: to remedy the uncleanness and its terrible consequences and to usher in a new Kingdom of love. That Kingdom is present; not consummated, but commenced. That Kingdom that is above all other supposed kingdoms of time is enlarging with each new person who speaks words from the heart, “Lord, receive me, a poor sinner, into Your Kingdom.”
So, in the end, the lonely figure in the shadows moves, by invitation, and as if guided by an unseen hand of kindness, to the glowing golden light an unending Feast of the Incarnation. Unworthy but welcomed, the solitary man is no longer alone. Suddenly, as the music of the third movements silences, the man is a part of a greater whole. He takes his place with others. He has made it home. And lo, every Christmas Eve had been a hint of the home he dreamed. And it was Christmas forevermore.
I think that is the song that I wrote.
Here is the song. We offer it to you as a gift of Incarnational love.
- When Heaven Came Down in Three Movements. Words, and Music ⓒⓅ 2018 by Michael Anthony Milton (Final Four Music Publishing Co.), BMI.
- The “movements” may also be divided into three unique pieces. We offer them to you here, free to stream.
- When Heaven Came Down (single). Words, and Music ⓒⓅ 2018 by Michael Anthony Milton (Final Four Music Publishing Co.), BMI.
- Prélude à la nativité Music is ⓒⓅ 2018 by Michael Anthony Milton (Bethesda Music.), BMI.
- La nativité Ouverture. Music is ⓒⓅ 2018 by Michael Anthony Milton (Bethesda Music.), BMI.
- Sheet music. Digital downloads from SheetMusicPlus.com.
Merry Christmas to each and all and a very happy New Year. The Milton Family and Faith for Living, Inc.