Christmas, 2020

I think this year I’ve finally figured out why I prefer the more somber Christmas songs. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” has always been my favorite of the common ones. Sure, some of it is just aesthetics (that progression on the opening “Emmanuel” from the minor sixth to the minor third…), but there’s something else. The more purely jubilant songs just feel like they miss part of the story. The somber ones are happy, but they also know we’ve been through some shit to get here.

It’s not that they aren’t joyful or celebratory. Christmas has almost always been happy for me. And I’ll happily belt out Joy to the World with abandon; it’s beautiful, strong, and fun. The joy, the jubilance, is a big, important part of the Christmas story. New baby! Let’s celebrate! And if you’re all in on Joy to the World, that’s great, too. There isn’t really any reason every song has to tell every part of the story. And at least today, that’s certainly the most important part of the story.

But Mary and Joseph had been through some shit to get to where they were that night. And most new parents know they’ve got a whole mess of it coming, too.

A pastor I used to know would read the opening to John (perhaps my favorite passage in the Bible) as part of the Christmas service. Not uncommon. But when he read John 1:5, he’d read it as “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not, and cannot, and will not, overcome it”.

Christmas is defiance.

My favorite moments from every Christmas service (maybe my favorite of any service) have all been the same: a hundred lights shining in the darkness. There’s a super common thing many churches do at the Christmas Eve service where, usually while singing Silent Night, the lights in the church are put out and one candle is lit. It being about midnight inside a church building, you can barely see your neighbor. But that candle passes its light to its neighbor, and that candle lights its neighbor’s, and before the song ends you have a hundred lights illuminating the church. A hundred tiny points of light in the darkness, a hundred individually almost insignificant flames, and you can see. You can feel it. Sometimes your neighbor’s light goes out and you light it for them again. Sometimes your light goes out. You look to a neighbor to light it again. The candles light everyone’s faces, all our light, together, illuminating space for each other. Because we know the darkness is real.

This time of year can be really rough for a lot of people. If things in your life, or in yourself, aren’t entirely the way you want them to be (and isn’t that just everyone, a bit?), I think the gulf between where you are and where you want to be can feel more profound now than any other time of year. We’ve built up a lot of expectations around this time of year. Sometimes everything from Santa’s helpers at the mall, to Hallmark movies, to the ubiquitous carols conspire to tell you there’s exactly one way you’re supposed to feel. It’s Christmas! Be happy! You’re happy, right? Right?

But really, the Christmas story is much more than that. This first night, especially, think of where Mary and Joseph are at. They’re in questionable accommodations in a city not their own. They’ve got a new baby, their first, with no family around. The wise men are still almost two weeks away. I imagine they’re happy, sure. But I imagine they’re frightened and anxious and exhausted, too. They’ve been through some shit to get where they are. And it’s not over.

This year, especially, we’ve all been through some shit to get where we are. It’s not been a good year. Some of our families are smaller than they should be. Lots of us are alone for the first time. For some these holidays just bring too much baggage every year. The nights are longest now, although they’ve just started letting in a little more light. It’s hard to see it. It happens slowly. And the nights are so long and cold. Sometimes our light goes out.

But we aren’t alone. There are a hundred other lights around us, whether we can see them or not. Whatever light you have can seem insignificant against the long, cold, dark. But the world is brighter with your light in it. There is help, when you need it; there is someone who will bring some light when yours goes out. And there’s someone who’ll need yours, too.

So celebrate, if you’re able! Sing every carol you can. But know that the weight you feel is okay, too. The darkness is real, and often terrifying. That’s part of the Christmas story, too. A story that recognizes what we’ve gone through, that celebrates in spite of it all, celebrates that we’ve come this far, and is even more beautiful.

If the octave in Joy to the World, that beautiful celebratory opening major scale, doesn’t quite fit, maybe the minor sixth in O Come, O Come, Emmanuel will feel a bit more natural. And it’s beautiful.

O come, Thou Dayspring, from on high,
> And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh;
> Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
> And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
> Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
> Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Happy first night of Christmas.