On the eve of celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace, it’s been a bit dispiriting to read the comments section the last couple of days. But I thought I’d solicit some reader responses to a less controversial set of questions:
What’s your favorite Christmas (or Advent) carol or other song? Why do you like it so much? What’s your favorite moment (lyrical or musical) in it, or favorite performance of it? (Feel free to link to YouTube or Vimeo.)
I’ll get things started with three such songs that have been in heavy rotation for me this month:
“My Soul Proclaims (Magnificat)”
I won’t be touching some of the third rails I’ve blogged about recently (guns, Islam). But I do think it’s important to start with the acknowledgment that the birth of Christ is not apolitical. It has fundamental consequences for the meaning of words like power and kingdom. Referring to this ancient hymn from Luke 1, Jim Wallis points out that
This is not the talk of charity and giving Christmas toys and turkeys to the less fortunate. The language of Mary is the narrative of revolution and redistribution, two words that the powers that be just hate. And while the revolution that Christ brings is not violent, it is nonetheless completely transformational. Mary got it.
I’m less likely than Wallis to see this transformation happening through the implementation of any political party’s platform, but he’s right that Nativity is a revolutionary moment in human history, correctly perceived as a threat by the local ruler of the time. But as frightening as is Jesus’ birth for Herod, and now for the unjust rulers of our own time, “the coming of Christ is such wonderful news for the rest of the world, especially those who feel left out.”
There are many settings of the Magnificat, but I most enjoy the gentle beauty of Marty Haugen’s. Especially when sung by the children in the video linked below, or by the largely elderly members of the sparse Lutheran congregation we joined last Saturday night for Holden Evening Prayer, the Magnificat is all the more subversive when its powerful promises are put in the mouths of the seemingly powerless.
“O Holy Night”
I’ve done a 180-degree turn on this one. Since I tend to prefer congregational or at least choral pieces, I used to roll my eyes at a tune that’s been the excuse for a million overwrought, look-at-me! solos. So when I started to research this post and saw that “O Holy Night” topped at least one music magazine’s attempt to rank the best religious Christmas songs (because “above all, it’s a blast for great singers to cover”), I started to rethink the whole project.
But Emma Green’s riff on the song‘s emotional high point put to words something that had struck me after hearing Sufjan Stevens’ take during last night’s harrowing wintry drive on I-35:
Knee metaphors are for humans at our humblest: Fall on your knees. Know your smallness in the universe.
Sometimes, this act of falling is a response to tragedy or cruelty. But sometimes, it is awe. These are the knees of “O Holy Night”: wonderstruck, joyous, and yes, a little wobbly. Fall on your knees, the song commands. Jesus has been born, and even the angels are singing. A thrill of hope; the weary soul rejoices. For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. This is no normal night. It’s a time to brace, to get close to the ground. Oh, night divine.
Christmas is Incarnation, so Green is right to observe that “It’s this physicality that makes ‘O Holy Night’ so fascinating.” But even more so, “fall on your knees” commands humility, which often
is lost in the singing. I mentally associate “O Holy Night” with sopranos like Céline Dion and Whitney Houston, who dramatically trill the song to unbelievable heights, a full orchestra behind them. It’s also been Josh Groban-ized, lyrically transformed into a full-blown Hallmark movie climax. These renditions are impressive, and they have been popular. But the singers are not on their knees. They make the song less by performing it as more than what it is: a divine gutpunch, a breathless celebration of a world fundamentally changed.
Like me, Green prefers Stevens’ version. So before you click on the YouTube screen below, read her listening suggestions:
Stevens is an atypical Christian music maker: He often sings about God, even when it isn’t Christmas, but he never seems preachy. He seems fragile. He seems like he needs Jesus’s love.
Savor the insistent plucking of the banjo, the slightly-out-of-tune male-and-female chorus, the high notes not quite hit! The awkward recorder interlude is a Sufjan signature, and it’s fitting here: What are recorders if not the frailest of wind instruments? And then there’s that line. Fall on your knees, Sufjan crows, weaving in and out of the vowels. Stop performing; listen. Hear the angel voices.
“In the Bleak Midwinter”
I know, I know: for Mary and Joseph, as now for the majority of people who follow their son, Christmas almost certainly didn’t come amid “Frosty wind” or “Snow had fallen, snow on snow.” But Incarnation is incarnate in particular ways, and for better or worse, the culture of an island in northern European has done much to shape my idea of what Christmas sounds and looks like. (Recordings of the King’s College Choir singing on Christmas Eve have basically been my soundtrack for grading this past week.)
And in any case, I’d give Christina Rosetti poetic license to draw on her own experience of December to articulate the truth that Christ comes to us all in the midst of spiritual — if not physical — bleakness, coldness, and darkness. A sentiment that we’re too eager to banish for the sake of keeping Christmas merry. (Let “holidays” be happy; Christmas is more complicated.)
To the very end, there’s a palpable sense of reduced circumstances (“A stable-place sufficed”; “A breastful of milk, / And a mangerful of hay; / Enough for him…”; “What can I give him / Poor as I am?”) underscored by the melancholy of the tune from Gustav Holst, composed at a time of personal scarcity. As Sophia Gilbert points out, in one of her contributions to The Atlantic‘s excellent series of essays on “12 Days of Christmas Songs” (also featuring Green on “O Holy Night”),
there’s something poignant in the reminder, especially at this time of year, that giving is about intention, not cost. When Holst wrote the music for “In the Bleak Midwinter,” he was working as a music teacher at James Allen’s Girls School (my high school, oddly), because the money he made from his compositions wasn’t enough to live on. This changed a few years after he wrote “The Planets” during the First World War, but he continued to teach at girls’ schools until his death in 1934. “Music, being identical with heaven, isn’t a thing of momentary thrills, or even hourly ones,” he wrote in a letter in 1914. “It’s a condition of eternity.” For me, no carol captures that condition better than this one.
Now, your turn: Let’s get the comments section ringing with the sounds of Advent and Christmas!