The audio of this recording of the song "Angel Band" is one of my favorite music tracks, probably one of my favorites of all time. (Lyrics here, though they are slightly different on the second verse. It looks to me like everybody does the second verse a little differently.)
If you know that you really, really hate southern gospel music and/or country music, and that your opinion will never change, don't even bother trying to appreciate this song, because it's pretty much "that" style. But if your musical tastes are somewhat more open, I suggest that you don't watch the video I just linked (minimize it or something) but that instead you crank the volume and just listen to the music.
I have had this track on a Gaither hymns CD for four years now and only just now watched the video, so I've always known it through the medium of hearing rather than sight.
To my mind this has the interesting effect of making the cheering and enthusiasm of the audience and of the homecoming group more a part of the song. When I hear all the cheering and clapping break out before the encore, what I don't primarily think is, "Okay, there are all those pretty homecoming folks cheering for Vestal Goodman and hugging on each other. How sweet." I mean, I know that's going on at some level, and that's not a bad thing in itself, but at another level it sounds more to me like rejoicing in heaven, like the saints and angels cheering someone on in the race as he crosses the finish line.
For some reason, every time I listen to this song I think of martyrdom, even though it's really about death more generally. I think of someone actually about to be martyred, even being martyred, and believing that he is beginning his "triumph." All the indecision is behind him. I think of someone like Thomas Cranmer who was so afraid of death and allowed his fear of the flames to warp his integrity, but who then repented of that and thrust his hand into the fire. Was his burning at the stake a horrible death? Certainly it was. But it seems that Cranmer had achieved a kind of mental equilibrium there and knew that what he was doing was right. What lay behind him were his "strongest trials," all the confusion and temptation.
I myself am a great coward about pain and don't even want to think of dying a painful death for the sake of Christ. But together with my vivid imagination for horror I have a vivid imagination for the varieties of human response. And I can, just barely, imagine a kind of saint who, through all the pain, feels that he is triumphing, that he has moved past the danger point and the fear, and that he now knows that the angels are coming for him. His spirit loudly sings. He cries out in his agony and his triumph, "Come, angel band. Come and around me stand. Bear me away on your snowy wings to my immortal home!" And his soul goes up, rises up to God, borne by the angels who have sustained him in his hour of trial and who now take him to where the cheering of those on the other side joins the singing of his spirit.
We certainly should not glorify horror and pain for their own sake. They are evils. Soberly speaking, many have been corrupted and led away by the mere possibility, the mere fear of suffering. Moreover, much persecution goes on and on rather than ending in death for the martyr. No doubt many who suffer for Christ do not experience any rush of confidence, any sense of joy, but must merely endure through it with no sensible consolation from God and no merciful death that takes them to His presence.
But this other possibility exists as well and is good to think of, and this song allows us to imagine it--the triumph over death by means of death. O death, where is thy victory? O grave, where is thy sting?