Christmas, sorrow, and a song
I’ve been meaning to ask this for two years, but have never gotten around to it. Now seems to be as good of a time as any: Can anyone tell me what this song is?
(If you can’t see the player, here is a link to the recording.)
During Advent of 2010 I had EWTN on the TV in the background as I did some Christmas decorating (read: I was probably surfing the web while the kids dug through ornament boxes) and it played a live broadcast of a Mass that was, if I recall correctly, at the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Whatever it was I had been doing while footage of the Mass played in the background, I stopped when the choir began that song. I was so drawn to it, I was desperate to know what it was — so desperate that I actually had the forethought to grab my voice recorder and hold it up to the television so that I could ask all the sophisticated people who read my blog to enlighten me as to the name of this captivating piece of music.
I’ve thought about that song many times since I first recorded it. In all these years, I never did put my finger on why I was so drawn to it. It’s beautiful, yes. But there was something more. It “said” something to me, some profound wisdom that my heart yearned to hear, some truth that brought me the kind of peace that transcends happiness or sadness or any other surface-level emotion. It brought me the kind of peace that can only come from God. But what was it? What, exactly, was this song — a song whose lyrics I couldn’t even understand — speaking to me that was so important and true?
As I have watched the mind-numbingly horrific news coming out of Connecticut, that song has come to mind once again. And I think I finally understand what feels so true about it.
The song was sung as part of an Advent Mass. It was December, a few weeks before Christmas. Outside the doors of the Basilica, it was the “Christmas season.” While the world was proclaiming only uplifting messages of gaiety and good cheer, the choir at this Mass proclaimed a tune that was deep and serious, maybe even a little mournful, and seemed to spring from some eternal source. On the broadcast, people had tears in their eyes when they received the Eucharist. I remember vividly the shot of a two women who seemed to be mother and daughter; one’s eyes were red and glassy, the other had buried her head in her hands as if in great mourning.
What I felt that day when I first heard that piece of music, that I feel once again as I recall it, is that this song proclaimed a truth about Christmas that is utterly lacking in our modern culture’s understanding of the holiday. Certainly secular culture sees Christmas and the season surrounding it as one of non-stop positivity, happiness, and fun. Even many parts of mainstream Christianity seem to see the weeks leading up to December 25th as a time almost exclusively for happy thoughts.
In this understanding of the season, it seems antithetical to the entire concept of Christmas to think about all the terrible suffering in this world. If you fall into this “Christmas Lite” understanding of the season, as I think I may have done lately, there’s a feeling that it is an insane juxtaposition to be praying for people impacted by atrocities while draping garland across the tree. There’s even a temptation to block it out, to put it aside, to close your heart to those impacted by evil, in the name of keeping the Christmas spirit — or, if you immerse yourself in prayer for those who suffer, to think of that as something separate from your normal activities of the season, like you’re hitting Pause on Christmas, and will resume immersing yourself in the season when you’re done thinking about tragedies.
But, as I have been reminded by the traditional prayers of Advent, and by my memories of that song, Christmas is the celebration of the baby who was born save humanity — but he saved it through his suffering and death. As always with Christianity, joy and suffering, happiness and pain, are always entwined. The true “Christmas spirit” is not rooted in appreciation of material goods and surface-level amusements. Even when we celebrate, our toasts and our feasting are founded on truths that transcend this world.
It feels like this has become a season of sorrow. In a way, it always was. The only joy this season ever contained was a joy rooted in eternity, in the knowledge that death has been overcome, and the hope that we will all meet again in a place where there is no suffering.