This year for the four weeks of Advent, my friend Tod wrote a daily blog on his favorite Christmas songs, carols and hymns. And while he included both the ancient and modern, the secular and religious, the silly and the serious, he missed that real classic, “Grandma got run over by a reindeer.”
It was fun and interesting to learn about each of his choices and to agree or disagree about whether I would have included the same songs. His writing inspired me to consider what might be my pick for the Christmas carol that resonates most with me as we come to the end of a tumultuous 2017 and look into the future of 2018.
Which words speak to our current situation while pointing back to the miracle and mystery of the incarnation and forward to the hope and longing for a new future? Which carols tell the 2,000-year-old story in a way that doesn’t overly sentimentalize the message and images but accurately reflects our fears and our hopes, our joys and sorrows, and the complexity of our personal situations and political realities?
I have to admit that I didn’t pick “O Come All Ye Faithful,” not because I don’t enjoy singing it, but because it offers a complex theological answer to questions few people are currently asking about the nature of divinity and how Christ can be both God and human. There’s a time for wrestling with the deep issues around the nature of God but for most of us, that’s not what we’re looking for on Christmas Eve!
I considered “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” another favorite. But this year in Bethlehem, all is not so still and quiet. The tension brought about by the announcement that the US will move its embassy to Jerusalem has created consternation and protest in this primarily Palestinian town. The hopes of all the years are eclipsed by the fears of what this means for the peace process. Luke’s gospel mentions the requirement that Joseph and a very pregnant Mary had to fulfill because of their status as second-class citizens in a country occupied by another power. Luke doesn’t have to say how scary, disrupting and dangerous this required census is and how it affects those who are disenfranchised.
This has been a difficult exercise. For the past week I’ve asked everyone I know, “Which song would you choose for this Christmas?” The mother of a teenager, who is growing up before her eyes chose “What Child is this?” The widow whose husband died suddenly, leaving her bereft and in darkness, chose “O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining.” My dear husband, Bryon, chose one of my all-time favorites, “Once in Royal David’s City,” with its verse “when on earth he grew, he was tempted, scorned, rejected, tears and smiles like us he knew, thus he feels for all our sadness, and he shares in all our gladness.”
Good choices all, but what I need, what we need, what the world needs is a clear message of peace and goodwill towards all while being realistic about the many challenges we face. Those who walk in darkness are in need of a great light. All who have been silenced or afraid, on this night must be provided the safety to open their mouths to sing, sing, sing. Tonight we are invited to join with saints and angels in the hymns that ring through eternity – hymns that remind us of God’s promise to be with us; hymns that lift up the lowly and discover God in the most unexpected places; hymns that brim with the beauty and singing of the angels.
For me, the carol that says it best for our times was first a poem. It was written in 1849 by Edmund Sears, a Unitarian minister who had become overwhelmed, suffered a breakdown and was responding to his own melancholy and the threat posed by the Mexican American war.
In response to a request from a fellow clergy friend and possibly as an exercise to help him deal with his own grief and anxiety, he wrote “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” Our hymnal has only 4 of the 5 stanzas, which is a shame because I find them all profoundly helpful.
Sears writes about this weary world with its sad and lowly plains. He knows what it is like to be tired by all the changes and chances of this life and exhausted by the continued failure of humanity to love and care for one another and the earth. He mentions the woes of sin and strife and all the suffering we have caused, often to the most innocent and those unable to defend themselves. He begs us to be quiet for once and to hear beyond the protests, the disagreements, the violence, rage and strife, the blessed message of the angels.
Our Messiah has come to dwell with us, Jesus. He is the one who brings peace and reflects the song and vision of the angels. He is the one who lights the way and points to the truth. His is the light that shines in the darkness. When we are quiet and still, when we listen closely and pay attention, we can hear and join in this chorus of peace, love and joy.
Maybe you’ve had a hard year, too. Maybe you’ve been beset within and without. Perhaps you are tired and worn. Tonight you’ve come to this place for a bit of stillness, a bit of peace and quiet, a renewal of hope and the courage to carry on. If so, maybe the stanza that we don’t have in our hymnal is the one you need to hear.
Let me read/sing it for you:
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!