I love Christmas music.
I love Christmas music more than probably any person you have met. I whole heartedly believe Buddy the Elf’s mantra that the best way to spread Christmas cheer is by singing loud for all to hear.
Maybe I am just an exceptionally nostalgic person but Christmas music, sacred or secular (with the strong exceptions to I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus and Christmas Shoes), contains so much meaning deeply laced into memory that joy comes flooding in each Christmas season. As a music minister I have the privilege of the excuse of beginning my listening and playing of Christmas music early in the name of “preparation” and I will never complain about that.
But its not just the wonderful memories of precious Christmases past that make me love Christmas music, nor is it the overall awe and wonder of the season that make me love Christmas music. What makes me love Christmas music so much are the texts of our Advent and Christmas hymns that contain rich, creedal, unifying language of the truth and weight of the Incarnation, and the music that gives space for the dissonance between melancholy and joy.
Christmas isn’t at all a completely happy season.
It is at the same time angsty, heavy, lonely, hopeful, joyful, and filled with longing as it is merry. Christmas embodies the “already/not yet” truth of the Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God. God is Emmanuel and yet we wait for His second coming to make all things right, because things are not yet as they should be.
And it is (good) Christmas music that not only contains mountains of truth, but also captures the dissonance of the “already/not yet” and gives space for us to sing through all these feelings – happy or sad. Just look at O Come O Come Emmanuel for wonderful words that speak of our longing for Christ to come, and yet He is already with us; accompanied by eery but beautiful music that captures the mood of the aforementioned paradoxical truth.
O Come All Ye Faithful and Of the Father’s Love Begotten are hymns that contain rich (and solid) theology about the Incarnation and the Trinity; something sorely missed in our congregational singing eleven other months out of the year. And in O Holy Night is my favorite stanza of poetry ever penned, for it is the heart of Christ eloquently and simply put:
Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
This Christmas dissonance of hope and struggle isn’t unique to sacred hymnody though, it is ridden through and through in some the greatest secular Christmas songs: I’ll Be Home for Christmas, White Christmas, Christmas Lights (shoutout to Coldplay), and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Each of these have what I call the melancholy joy that is the Christmas spirit.
This melancholy joy is the full awareness of two truths of reality:
- The world is in desperate need of Jesus to come in His glory and fulfill our hopes of no more death, war, sorrow, sin, tears.
- Jesus is with us already. Christ has come, Christ has died but is risen, and Christ will come again.
To believe one without the other is to reject our true reality; leaving you with either a world without any hope or reason to wake up, or a world that is blinded to injustice all around us. To follow Christ is to accept this tension, live in it, and go bring Christ who lives in you to a world in need of the Gospel.
This is what it means for us to live in the Light and be the Light of the world as Christ commands. In the light all things are exposed and seen as they truly are. This is admittedly a scary thing but fear not for Christ has overcome. When war, division, sex trafficking, pornography, divorce, ISIS, mass shootings here in America, social injustice and inequality, or corrupt politicians flood our news headlines and sink our hearts we need not fear – Christ has overcome and He is coming again. We need to not ignore these things nor ignore the weight in our hearts caused by these horrors, but we should never lose hope that God is Emmanuel – He is with us. He is in every breath, every tear good or bad, every embrace, every shout for joy, every moment. Jesus, God of God, Light of Light, the King of angels is with us forevermore.
And that is precisely a reason to sing.
With melancholy and joy.