Have you ever noticed how many of our favorite carols are written in a minor key? Think about it for a minute . . .
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
“In the Bleak Midwinter”
“Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent”
“What Child Is This?”
“I Wonder as I Wander”
“Carol of the Bells”
“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”
“Coventry Carol” (“Lullay, Thou Little Tiny Child”)
These are melodically darker-hued songs, offered in a season when we are encouraged on every side to be merry, dang it! And I am more grateful than I can say for the rich texture they bring to these days before Christmas.
Because there are many pieces of this story that can only be told in a minor key.
Sometimes I think we forget that Jesus came into a broken world, that there were no colored lights, and certainly no tinsel around that hayloft. Yes, yes — the gift of the incarnation is unspeakably good, that babe whose head was cradled by his open-hearted, willing young mother, that babe brought light and hope to us all.
But in and around the lowing of cattle, the bleating of lambs, the exhausted moans of a brand-new mom and the healthy lungs of a newborn — who can forget the cries of the mothers in Ramah, the rumbling threat of Herod, the hurried flight to Egypt, or the sorrowful truth about where that sweet baby hung his beautiful head at the end of his good, good life?
The reality of life on planet earth is that even good news, the best possible news, must be told in the midst of the bad; to get to the light, we have to walk through the dark. To truly live our story, we have to tell all the pieces of it.
So I think it’s important that the sounds of sadness, the echoes of loss, the edges of fear and uncertainty, are carefully and intentionally woven into our celebrations. All the voices in this Story, and in our own stories, cry out to be heard as we move toward the manger and the major key of Christmas Day.
I know that I have lived longer than most of you who are reading this piece. And over the course of this long life, I have experienced loss upon loss, asked question upon question, and listened for the answers in the midst of silence. If there is one thing I’ve learned, one truth that stands at the top of all the truths I know, it is this one: everyone carries a story of brokenness. Everyone.
And sometimes, that story needs to be acknowledged in the midst of the rush to gifts and hearty songs, the downing of hot cider or hot cocoa, the hanging of stockings by the fireplace. These quieter songs need to be sung, and the real-life sorrows they evoke acknowledged, even in and around laughing children, sugar cookies, and fires burning merrily on the hearth.
For me, these layers to our story are best experienced in the plaintive cry of a minor key, in the questions and tentative answers of a call and response, or in the starlit words of a wandering minstrel.
All of us live with one kind of loss or another, don’t we? The first Christmas after a loved one dies is poignant and bittersweet. If we live in a state of perpetual wondering, maybe even wandering, that, too, is a kind of loss. And living with a long list of unanswered questions brings its own kind of grief.
Will health to be restored? Will this pain accompany me all my days? Will there be enough month left at the end of the money? Will we always be scrambling to pay these bills? Will my loved one (or will I) find our way to freedom from addiction? Is the brokenness of our complicated family story somehow beyond the healing power of God? Can I muster the energy to create some festive memories for my little ones, when I feel so very low myself? Will the dreams I have for a future, with loved ones around, and family near, ever come true? Can I experience the light of Christmas through my tears? Will those tears be welcome, honored, held?
The wonder of Advent — these 24 days of waiting and wondering — is that it makes room for all the threads of the story to be here, for each rich shade of color to be woven together into a beautiful, multi-dimensional tapestry. And tears are a necessary and important part of the finished work. Maybe that’s why these songs, these questioning carols, are the perfect music for this season. After all, these minor key musings were written for singing in this season, this quiet time, these days before Bethlehem. That’s why churches that observe Advent save the major-key songs for Christmas. Because when we’ve made room for the questions, when we’ve welcomed the tears, then we can sing out the answers and acknowledge the under-girding joy that holds and carries all the shades of Christmas.
Wishing you all a blessed Advent — and when that day arrives, a Merry Christmas!