Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Christmas In A Minor Key

There is a reason that we love to skip straight to the angel chorus astounding the shepherds with glad tidings. The hard part of Christmas can be too painful to dwell on for long. But anyone who has faced the holiday after losing a loved one knows that ho-ho-ho can sound hollow, or worse. For me, only the whole story will do. Only the part where God looked into the hearts of people and knew we needed a story born of our own sorrow, our own worry, our own limited understanding. That's why my favorite Christmas carols are the ones set in a minor key (I'll use that term for simplicity, so if you are music person please don't be offended when I describe a plainsong that way). The music that voices the yearning for solace speaks to me at Christmas time, more than any other.

My favorite was written in the 5th century. Before Pope Gregory gathered songs and called them Gregorian Chants. It's called Of the Father's Love Begotten. Just writing the title calls the haunting melody into my heart. It is unlike modern Christmas Carols that use harmony modes. It was originally sung in unison, and was unaccompanied. Just humans singing in a world where music is sometimes the greatest comfort. It has lasted so long, handed down through centuries, because it is beautiful, and because it is hopeful. Because people who loved it before I was born needed assurance that we don't exist in a vacuum, that there is a reason we are here.

There is much about the Christmas story that we hurry past, not taking a long hard look. I do it because I can't bear to think of the tragedy of the parents whose baby sons were murdered at Herod's command. All male children under two years of age were slaughtered. I want to cry with them and rage at God who let that happen. It's no different from the tragedy in our world. How can a God of mercy allow children to starve to death? To drown trying to flee from murderers in their own country? What does it mean that God should intervene to send Jesus, but not to save the suffering children? I don't know. I won't know in this lifetime. When I feel the crush of sadness about it, about the loss every person will endure, I don't want to hear the glorious strains. I want to hear the cry of God's own heart. Because I can't pretend that all is well and lovely.

What Child Is This is set to the beautiful melody Greensleeves. The minor key draws me to the beautiful lyrics. Because even in the triumphant last two lines of each verse, the victory stands in the middle of the pain, not in denial. And I believe that is where Christmas is the most valuable, the most important. Not in pretending that everything is fine. But that even in the darkest time of the year, even when we are mired in the darkest times of our lives, we are not alone in that darkness. God does not rise above that and ignore our sorrow. Instead, the story of a baby born in the squalor of a stable, born to common people rather than royalty, born into the bondage of the rule of Rome, that story is what gives me hope. If you get a chance, look up the tune to this ancient plainsong. You can be a purist and not listen to goopy SATB versions, or you can just enjoy a good recording. Think of the voices who have sung it through the centuries. Evermore and evermore.

1. Of the Father's love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the Source, the Ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see
Evermore and evermore.

2. Oh, that birth forever blessed
When the Virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bare the Savior of our race,
And the Babe, the world's Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face
Evermore and evermore.

3. O ye heights of heaven, adore Him;
Angel hosts, His praises sing;
Powers, dominions, bow before Him
And extol our God and King.
Let no tongue on earth be silent,
Every voice in concert ring
Evermore and evermore.

4. This is He whom Heaven-taught singers
Sang of old with one accord;
Whom the Scriptures of the prophets
Promised in their faithful word.
Now He shines, the Long-expected;
Let creation praise its Lord
Evermore and evermore.

5. Christ, to Thee, with God the Father,
And, O Holy Ghost, to Thee
Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving
And unending praises be,
Honor, glory, and dominion,
And eternal victory
Evermore and evermore.


  1. I appreciate your acknowledgement that Christmas isn't just about joy. For me, the emotion that encompasses all of what you shared is love. You can love and be loved through any emotion or situation. From the depths of despair you can love. When you are angry you can be loved. Love, love, love. Just another way of saying what you just said, I guess ;). Thanks again for a great read, mom.

  2. I think this is one of the most beautiful stories you have written. It is beautiful. No, Christmas is not just about joy. I love the music and the thoughts that come from listening to Christmas carols, old and new. Why it makes sometimes makes me feel melancholy I know I am not alone in the world. . . and more importantly, that I am still loved.