I was in a bad mood at church yesterday, and singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” didn’t help. It should be ‘come all you doubtful, stumbling and hesitant’ not ‘come all you faithful, joyful and triumphant,’ I thought bitterly. I have so little patience with the reality that some people are confident and happy in moments when I am not.
But we followed the bright song with “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” which is my all-time, constant favorite Christmas hymn. Its minor chords instantly put a smile on my face, and I remembered that Christmas is a pretty dark holiday. There is joy, definitely, in the fact that the God who created everything decided to become human to love us more intimately. But our celebration of Christmas is also about the longing of Israel 2,000 years ago for a savior, mirrored in our current longing for a returned savior – for the end of all this corruption and pain and half-answered prayers.
I am emotionally allergic to unadulterated joy (in any real conversation, obviously not when I’m nerding out about things like Hamilton), and I cannot stand a faith that focuses only on the surety of God’s love and how trusting Him makes everything better, praise the Lord! Ugh. That’s just not my reality. Instead, I mostly three-quarters believe that God is real, and while I am in love with the story that a Creator God keeps forgiving us messy humans, sometimes I sit and think a long time about how shitty life can be, even for me with all my privilege and opportunities, so what in the world must life be like for someone abused, neglected, and tortured? I need a faith that can handle darkness, and Christmas hymns often assure me that there is space in worshipping Jesus to mourn and rejoice simultaneously. We cry for how things are and we eagerly await his renewal of things – both now in our imperfect attempts at forgiveness, justice, and compassion, and later, when all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
So I find comfort in “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” a song that shouts “rejoice” into the darkness, not as a reality but as a hope.
My preference for grittier Christmas songs is why my only go-to Christmas playlist is Sufjan Steven’s Christmas albums. With a total of 79 songs between Songs for Christmas and Silver & Gold, Sufjan is clearly obsessed with Christmas and all its emotional nuances. My absolute favorite song he sings is “The Child with the Star on his Head,” which has golden lines like these:
Once in a while, you may think you see better than the others
Scrambling around in the dark with your drum
Which is just about exactly my experience as a Christian, shouting truths as I stumble around in fear. But all the doubt and self-reliance comes crashing into Christmas:
Why crawl around in the snow
When you know I am right here
Waiting for you to expect something more?
For I am warm, I am calling you close to my table
Where I have made us a feast
For the year of troubles, they have gone
The winter brings a Christmas song
And the child with the star on his head
All of the world rests on his shoulders
And the mother with the child on her breast
Blessed is she among women
These are the kinds of Christmas hymns I crave (maybe not the ten minutes of increasingly grating instrumental music at the end, although I can emotionally appreciate the his musical offering of chaos). There’s a time and a place and a people for “Go Tell It On the Mountain” and “O Come All Ye Faithful,” but 99% of the time, I’m enduring those songs so we can get to the ones that let me bring my confusion and desperation to the holiday table. Thank God Christmas isn’t only for the happy smiling people.