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.
Tricia, my beloved granddaughter…. I must disagree a bit with you. The carols last night brought tears to my eyes. I completely agree that “joy” has not come to all people… but joy is available to all people, because of Christmas… because of Christ’s coming. All of Christmas is joy to me, I guess, until I think of “Good” Friday, and even then I see His Joy, when I think of Easter. One of my favorite verses of the Bible is 1 John 4:18, which says, “”There is no fear in love, for perfect love drives out fear”. I don’t have ‘perfect love’. But that is what God gives, and he has given me a big share of it! Hopefully as I mature, I can claim more of His love… and joy… and lack of fear. When my granddaughter goes to Greece, I will not be completely free of fear, but I will be full of joy… well almost. There will be a bit of loneliness, I guess. But even with the fear, God has promised peace, knowing that he cares for you even if there should be some bad times, and that he cares for me if some of the bad times (and worry) spills over on me.
And really, that is what Christmas is about for me (and you), because we have come to know him and to trust him. Thank you, God, for Christmas, and for offering us more love than we can possibly understand.
Your G’pa…. with love… and joy… and peace!