It’s my turn to offer up some thoughts about Advent and/or Christmas music, as part of a blog chain started by my pal Harriet the Spy. Here are the other links in this blog chain:
Harriet at spynotes
Hugh at Permanent qui vive
Jeanne at Necromancy never pays
Cranky at It’s My Blog!
Dr. Geek at Dr. Geek’s Laboratory
Lemming at Lemming’s Progress
Readersguide at Reader’s Guide to…
Freshhell at Life in Scribbletown
edj3 at kitties kitties kitties
My Kids’ Mom at Pook and Bug
Magpie at Magpie Musing
Dave at The Ideal Dave
and then Harriet at spynotes will do a wrap-up
I love being in the company of such a groovy group of writers and thinkers, and I’m a little baffled at how I stumbled into this gang. I hope you’ll go read their blogs if you don’t know about them already. There’s very cool stuff happening out here in Internetville.
The Little Drummer Boy
How much have I always hated this song? Let me count the ways. Nah, rather than count, I will tell you that I have hated this song with the intensity of a thousand supernovas, ever since I can remember. For a host of reasons, this song has always been like fingernails on a chalkboard for me. Until a couple of years ago.
In 2010, PW’s friend Ana Hernandez released an album of Advent and Christmas music called “An Unexpected Christmas,” in which Ana’s arrangements of some familiar songs, as well as some original work, are sung by the Virginia Girls Choir from St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA.
The first track on this album is The Little Drummer Boy. Cue Joybells’ rolled eyes, the “Oh geez, I can’t believe they’re beginning the album with THAT!” I had my finger hovering over the fast forward button, but then this unfolded:
I love the layers of percussion, with Ana’s tight harmonies shimmering above. And mostly I love the persistent minor-key-ness of it. And now it’s an earworm that I welcome.
Once in Royal David’s City
Yeah, yeah, this is an old holiday chestnut. Except when it cracks you open as if YOU are the nut.
At PW’s previous church, I sang in the choir–mostly tenor. Five years ago was the last midnight Christmas Eve service for PW and me, before we moved on to Emmanuel Church. So it was already emotionally loaded for me.
The music director, A, and his wife, L (who was also the soprano soloist for the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City) had a six-month-old baby girl at the time. As the choir was lining up in the hallway outside the sanctuary getting ready to process, L was trying to get Baby E to fall asleep before the service started. It was late and E was so tired she was cross-eyed. But there was a lot of energy in the hallway, and she just couldn’t get over the edge into sleep.
As the organ prelude began to wind down, I told L, “Just give me the baby. You’ve got to go sing that gorgeous solo. We can’t start without that.” So L put her restless daughter in my arms and I threw a blanket over E’s to try to reduce her visual stimuli.
I found my place in the line and bounced E in my arms (that always worked with GForce, before she got to be six feet tall!) Then from the back of the sanctuary, L began to sing that soaring melody, unaccompanied: “Once in Royal David’s city, stood a lowly cattle shed…” By the time she got to the second line of the hymn, her voice hovering over our heads in the hallway, E was limp–sound asleep in my arms.
As the choir began to process in on the second verse, I tweaked that gorgeous tenor line by singing to E, “She came down to earth from heaven…” We sang and processed slowly through the candlelit sanctuary, and the baby slept through the whole thing. I sang my heart out, tears welling up and then spilling over. And as I looked at the congregation, most of the people I saw were also weeping. Afterwards, people asked me if we had staged it, my carrying the baby during the procession. But, in a distillation of one of the messages of the Christmas story, what began as a purely practical solution became an entirely magical moment, and now I can’t hear or sing that song without remembering the weight of slumbering possibility in my arms.
The Infant King (Sing Lullaby)
In the weeks leading up to that same service where I processed carrying the sleeping baby, I made a CD of all the songs we were going to be singing so that I could practice in the car. I had never sung “The Infant King (Sing Lullaby)” before, and I was a little worried because every time I practiced it I couldn’t get through it without crying.
Lullaby baby, now reclining,
Hush, do not wake the Infant King.
Angels are watching, stars are shining
Over the place where he is lying.
So far so good in terms of the lyrics, but the intertwining of the parts is so evocative for me. The first verse is an exquisite set-up for the heartbreak that sneaks up in the second verse. The first verse is such a great musical and lyrical painting of this moment: it’s the wee hours of the middle of the night after I’ve just given birth to GForce, and the nurse has brought her to me, wrapped tighter than a burrito, after they’ve taken her to the nursery to bathe and swaddle her. And it’s just the two of us. She’s sleeping. I’m staring at her. Will I ever sleep again? Do I even care? Look at what I made! Everything’s all “La la la happy happy happy.” And then the second verse comes along like a sucker punch.
Lullaby baby, now a-dozing,
Hush, do not wake the Infant King.
Soon comes the cross, the nails, the piercing,
Then in the grave at last reposing:
The first time we read this through in rehearsal, I thought, “WHAT?! We’re singing THIS on Christmas EVE?? Nails? Piercing? Can’t we celebrate the miracle of birth for more than 30 seconds before we move on to humiliation and execution?” But isn’t that exactly how it is with parenting? Bliss and abject fear intertwine. As soon as you bring a child into your life, you set yourself up for a lifetime of this. It’s maybe the only love affair we have where, if we’re doing it well, we’re getting our hearts broken over and over again. And, perversely, we hope that we get to live for decades with this parental bliss and fear.
Lullaby! is the babe a-waking?
Hush, do not stir the Infant King.
Dreaming of Easter, gladsome morning,
Conquering Death, its bondage breaking:
I love the melody and harmonies of this carol so much that my theological disagreements with the specifics of its lyrics are irrelevant. This carol is the distillation of my journey to becoming a Christian. For me, worrying about whether anything in scripture [f]actually happened is completely missing the point. What matters to me is the arc of these ancient stories. The details don’t have to be factual for the arc to be fundamentally true. Any storyteller worth her or his salt knows this. And the arc of scripture bends toward redeeming Love. Relentlessly.
The arc of this carol is the same as the arc of what it means to me to be both human and Christian: we begin with the wonder of birth (of life, of a dream, of an idea, of hope), to the crushing of dreams that is death (not just physical death, but any humiliation, brutal defeat, exhausted resignation, senseless violence), to the resilience and redemption of Love, which never lets death have the final word. Never.
I’m writing this on Sunday night, after watching President Obama address the community of Newtown, CT, the latest town torn apart by a mass shooting. I’m writing this a week after hearing of the sudden death of a long-time friend, mentor, and colleague of PW’s and mine. I feel “hemmed in by death,” as PW described it to a friend early last week, days before Newtown became shorthand for unspeakable violence and loss.
I watched a video Saturday night of one of the parents of a six-year-old girl who was killed in Newtown. Here’s one view of how Love conquers “death, its bondage breaking.” I urge you to watch the entire thing, if you haven’t seen it already.
I’m going to let the brilliant poet, Christina Rossetti, have the last word here. I couldn’t find a choral rendition of this carol that I liked, so I’m going with Shawn Colvin’s version. That’s like settling for Paradise instead of Nirvana. This carol’s beauty can mask the urgency of its rousing charge. It’s not a lullaby; it’s a commission: Whatever we do, don’t miss any opportunity to testify to Love. There will always be senseless violence and brokenness in the world. There can never be too much Love. Let Love and Beauty be our tokens. May Love and Beauty bloom wherever we are–as plea, gift, and sign.
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.
Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and [all of us]
Love for plea and gift and sign.