December arrives. Nights grow longer and colder, while the Christmas countdown speeds up. Muzak carols permeate the airwaves and the malls, and a certain franticness of spirit grows. More parties; more shopping.
All of which makes me grateful for my congregation’s commitment to launch December with a full-on carol sing. Of course, on Sunday mornings at St. Andrew’s-Wesley United in Vancouver, we still work our way through the hymns of Advent; we know it’s good for our souls. But we have finally admitted in our heart of hearts that what we really need, early in December, is an entire evening of singing all the old familiar, heart-warming, soul-touching carols. We decided to call it our Christmas gift to the community.
The first time we did this, several years ago, we didn’t know who would turn up. Sure, some of the loyal older members of the congregation would be there, people who can probably sing two or three verses of almost every carol by memory. But when we opened the doors, we were amazed (good Christmas word, that!) by the number of people who poured in: almost 400, most of whom we’d never seen before — young and old, families and singles, off the street and dressed for the occasion — and all of us eager to sing our hearts out. I found myself wondering, why such a response?
Well, there’s something that happens when a big crowd starts singing carols. When we hear others around us, we sing freely, loudly, even joyously. There are hints of harmonies and forgiveness of off-key experiments. There’s more smiling, as our hearts recognize that Christmas is best enjoyed in community.
Then there are all those memories of Christmases past that are evoked by special carols — easily dismissed as nostalgia, but surely more than that. We sing Away in a Manger, and I remember dozens of Christmas pageants with children spilling over the stairs; or O Come, All Ye Faithful, and I hear thundering organ with a grand choral procession. When we sing We Three Kings, I’m back in my grandmother’s farmhouse, with extended family gathered around the piano, and my uncle Archie happily booming out the chorus: “O, star of wonder . . .” Silent Night conjures a darkened sanctuary lit only by flickering candles. As we sing carol after carol, the worship space fills with memories — gentle, warm, wistful, hopeful. It’s palpable; you can see it in our faces.
Music and memory, different for each one of us. But sharing such memories — now that would make for a good Advent conversation. Maybe ask the person beside you in the pew, or a friend or family member, “What’s your favourite Christmas carol? And why? Tell me the story that goes with the music.” Sharing such stories can take you closer to the heart of Christmas.
A musician friend of mine, Linnea Good, once told me that music is the way we take deep theological thoughts and move them from our heads into our hearts. What is in our hearts, then, as we sing favourite carols?
Sometimes I think we’re singing out of heartache and sadness, recognizing that too often things are awry in our lives. The haunting quality of some of our favourite carols gives us a certain permission to acknowledge our hurts and regrets. Some carols talk about sins and sorrows, “far as the curse is found.” Others offer more gentle images, of angels floating “o’er all the weary world, above its sad and lowly plains”; of snow falling “in the bleak midwinter”; of stars silently looking down on “dark streets” filled with “hopes and fears.” And when we sing about a stable and a lonely manger, perhaps our hearts remember that for many people, still, there is no room at the inn.
Then, out of that hint of a blue Christmas, there comes the voice of hope for change; some would say for salvation. Our carols point to a dream that God will bring healing — more love, more peace, more joy. We sing the story of a mother and child, of angels and shepherds, a story full of love and surprise. We want it to be true, though we know that hope is precarious, as vulnerable as a newborn baby.
And then comes the moment we’ve all been waiting for, yearning for, when the music breaks through our defences and our doubts, and we believe the promises of joy to the world and peace on earth. There’s strength in our singing; we want our carols to be loud and strong. We clap our delight to the rhythms of a gospel carol — “Go, tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born” — celebrating the Incarnation, although we would never use so fancy a word. Instead, we sing of birth and babies and bodies, of a holiness that abides deep within our hearts, of a God whose love pours forth into all Creation, even upon us. We light candles, knowing that for right now, the darkness is bearable, even beautiful. And we lose ourselves in the refrain of a “Gloria” that goes on forever.
Rt. Rev. Gary Paterson is the 41st moderator of The United Church of Canada.