October 1962. The world was on the brink of nuclear war. The Soviet Union was stockpiling missiles in Cuba and the U.S. government responded with a military blockade. The world watched in fear as the U.S. Navy prevented a Russian freighter, loaded with armaments, from approaching Cuba. Hindered by mistrust and poor communications, John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev were locked in a battle of wills. Tensions were high and rising. Mutually assured destruction was no longer a theory, but a distinct possibility. Former New Jersey Senator, Robert Torricelli, remembered it this way:
“The Cuban Missile Crisis was one of the most vivid experiences in my life. Watching the television and waiting for the reports of whether the Russian freighter was going to reverse course. Going to the supermarket with my parents, and they carried that list from the newspaper of the things you needed to have in the basement if there was a nuclear war. Then my parents set up a battery radio and cots and sleeping bags in the basement, things to store water and a lot of canned food.”
The Cuban Missile Crisis was a close-to-home reality for my family as well. My father was in the Air Force, responsible for the readiness of some our nuclear-armed fighter interceptors. The base was on alert which meant little sleep for Dad and his crew. No doubt, my mother was concerned about what this would mean for our family.
Amid the global crisis, life carried on in that October. The Beatles released their first single, “Love Me Do”. The Yankees beat the Giants in the World Series. Sean Connery starred in the first-ever James Bond movie, Dr. No. And, seemingly in another world, a record producer asked the husband and wife songwriting team of Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker to write a new Christmas song. Regney, a French citizen living in New York, had a very personal experience with war. He had been conscripted by the German army in World War II. Eventually, he joined the French resistance and served as a double agent. For Regney, the idea of another global war – particularly a nuclear war – was terrifying.
As a writing team, Regney and Baker had written several well-known songs. Normally, Baker would write the lyrics and Regney would compose the music. But, this song was different. As they began to write, they decided to reverse their roles. Regney wanted to write the words. He wanted a song that connected the story of Christmas with the crisis of the day. He wanted a song that would serve as a global call to prayer for peace. He wanted a song that would appeal to young and old. The song they wrote during the Cuban Missile Crisis, “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, has become one of the most recorded Christmas songs of all time.
The narrative of the song begins on a whisper, with the wind taking note of an unusual star in the night sky. “Said the night wind to the little lamb, Do you see what I see?…A star dancing in the night.” The drama builds as the lamb hears not just the wind, but a heavenly song. “Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy, Do you hear what I hear?…A song high above the trees.” In the unsung part of the song, the shepherd finds a Child, laying in a manger. What joy! A child – this Child – has come to meet our deepest need. This Child brings true salvation, true hope, true peace. In this Child, our deepest fears are relieved, whether of wind, night, or nuclear war.
Having been changed by this Child, even the littlest of shepherds can go boldly into the world with a message of hope, even to the halls of power. “Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king, do you know what I know?…A Child shivers in the night. Let us bring him silver and gold.” The little shepherd challenges the king: let’s give this Child the best of us. Let’s think and live differently because of him. The king responds by calling out to the people, “Listen to what I say! Pray for peace, people everywhere!” It’s a humble charge by the king. Listen to me, not because I am the king, but because I am pointing you toward the Child-King. In calling the world to prayer, the king acknowledges that he, too, needs transcendent peace. The wind, lamb, shepherd boy, king, and the people form a chain of communication, each serving the next. They ask each other the most profound questions that can be asked: Do you see, hear, and know?
The Cuban Missile Crisis ended shortly before the song was released in November 1962. Nuclear war was averted. The world went back to its daily routines. That moment in time is now just a paragraph in the history books. And yet, this song endures. It is still one of the most frequently played Christmas songs. We can’t be sure, but chances are good that both the Kennedy and Khrushchev families heard the song. Do you think they saw the connection? Do you think they saw the invitation to find true, transcendent peace in Christ? A songwriter, let’s call him a little lamb that writes songs, used his gifts and circumstances to pose a grand question about truth and redemption. It’s a question that remains for us today. So, as one little lamb to another, I ask you: Do you hear what I hear?