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Everyone 55 or older remembers it—remembers where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot. That the threshold of recollection is so, umm, advanced in years is the most remarkable fact of this reminiscence for me, for at the moment of his death John F. Kennedy was the definition of young, we were young, and we were all to remain young forever. To a generation whose definitive memory is 9/11, the Kennedy assassination—fifty years ago today as I write this—is pretty ancient history.
Ancient, but fresh. I heard the news right at the end of home-room that Friday. The school principal had delayed telling us some ninety minutes till we were ready to go home for the weekend. I don’t remember the words the teacher used; I remember instead the victory whoop two rows behind me from the addled scion of a particularly right-wing family in the community: “Great! That clinches it for Goldwater in ’64!” Turns out his punditry was as grossly wrong as his morality, but the sentiment is not without analogy in public discourse today.
That weekend my family and I pretty much stayed glued to our relatively recently purchased TV, the first in our home. I picture cold and rainy outside, but maybe that was inside projected outward. I remember my father picking us up from Sunday school after morning church a couple days later, aghast with the news that now Lee Harvey Oswald had been shot too—live on national TV, no less. I remember most having to slog through Oliver Twist for 9th-grade English that weekend. I’ve never been able to read it again, nor have I been interested in seeing the BBC adaptation of this novel. Virtually every other Dickens work, yes, but not this one. A really toxic madeleine.
All the documentary replay of JFK’s funeral looked familiar this past week, so that must have passed as it passed back in the day. What stands out in memory is one piece of music: why were the bands playing “Creator Spirit by Whose Aid”? Because, I later found out, that was the tune for the U. S. Navy hymn, “Eternal Father Strong to Save.” But at the moment I appreciated the link to a live Christian Reformed wire—there was something specifically religious in the whole weekend that I could claim.
As a historian I’ve been asked how much Kennedy’s assassination really changed things. A worthy and unanswerable question, to be sure. I’ve long opined that it was Robert Kennedy’s assassination five years later that fundamentally shifted American politics, following so closely, as it did, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and being followed, as it was, by the tempestuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago that delivered the nation over to a law-and-order Southern white Republican hegemony for a generation. But with the verbal violence in the American political air these days, I can’t help but wonder if the physical violence visited upon the Massachusetts liberal in 1963 wasn’t in fact the harbinger of much more to come.
Which makes a recent discovery all the more poignant. In tracking down the music played over the weekend of the Kennedy observances, I came upon one that was commissioned at that time but not actually performed till later: the motet “Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing,” by Herbert Howells (1892-1983). The text is by the 4th-century Roman Christian poet Prudentius (“Of the Father’s Love Begotten”) as translated by Helen Waddell. The elegiac hope in the piece seems somehow appropriate both for the slain president and our dying politics. Hope it enriches your reflections, as it did mine.
Take him, earth, for cherishing,
to thy tender breast receive him.
Body of a man I bring thee,
noble even in its ruin.
Once was this a spirit’s dwelling,
by the breath of God created.
High the heart that here was beating,
Christ the prince of all its living.
Guard him well, the dead I give thee,
not unmindful of his creature
shall he ask it: he who made it
symbol of his mystery.
Comes the hour God hath appointed
to fulfill the hope of men,
then must thou, in very fashion,
what I give, return again.
Not though ancient time decaying
wear away these bones to sand,
ashes that a man might measure
in the hollow of his hand:
Not though wandering winds and idle,
drifting through the empty sky,
scatter dust was nerve and sinew,
is it given to man to die.
Once again the shining road
leads to ample Paradise;
open are the woods again,
that the serpent lost for men.
Take, O take him, mighty leader,
take again thy servant’s soul.
Grave his name, and pour the fragrant
balm upon the icy stone.