On this longest night, we gathered in our church sanctuary for our annual “Blue Christmas” service, which is designed to offer sanctuary to those who are grieving in the midst of the festivities, no matter what the loss. Ginger had candles across the altar at the front of the church, along with those in our Advent wreath and a table set for dinner (using our Christmas dishes) at the front as well. My friend Terry and I opened the service with “I Wonder as I Wander.” I sang the first verse acapella and then he wandered and wondered on his harmonica, drawing us all deeper into the darkness and the hope.
We then sang “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which is one of my favorite carols. I love the intentional simplicity of the lyric:
in the bleak midwinter frosty winds made moan
earth stood hard as iron water like a stone
snow had fallen snow on snow snow on snow
in the bleak midwinter long ago
As we sang together on this longest night of snow stacking up, I thought about how those in the early church tied celebration of Jesus’ birth to the solstice. Some say it was to counteract, or even appropriate, pagan cultures and celebrations. But as I sat in the service tonight, thinking of Jesus who was born nowhere near either any December or snow on snow, I found a compelling pull to celebrating Christmas right now. Tomorrow night, you see, will be a little bit shorter than tonight, and the one that follows even shorter still. We sing of frozen water and snow drifts and celebrate Jesus’ birth just as the planet is turning back to the light as a way to remind ourselves that it will not always be winter or dark or painful. The tiny baby in Bethlehem, who never knew of snow or much of winter, is born in our time and in our culture just as the tide is turing.
The promise of a Messiah was centuries old by the time Mary and Joseph settled in behind the inn. The Messiah that showed up was not yet fully formed, so everyone had to wait another thirty years for him to come into his own. When the angel came to tell Joseph what was going down, he comforted the carpenter by saying, “You should name him ‘Emmanuel,’ which means “God With Us.”
God. With. Us.
Whether the night is long or the day full of summer, whether the snow is stacking up or the sunshine beats down, God is with us. We are not alone.
Terry and I also performed one of my favorite hymns, “Come, Ye Disconsolate.”
come ye disconsolate
where’er ye languish
come to the mercy seat
here bring your wounded hearts
here tell your anguish
earth has no sorrow
that heaven cannot heal
I learned the hymn as a child and it sounded much like this. This afternoon while I was rehearsing, my friend Jay and I found this version that changed the way I thought of the song from a great old hymn to a great old bluesy gospel number. The discovery gave me the freedom to sing a bluesier version myself. We also found an “original lyric” to the hymn that changed the third line of the second verse to sing:
joy of the desolate
light of the straying
hope when all else is dead
faithful and pure
Whatever night Jesus actually came into the world twenty centuries ago, for most it was a bleak midwinter of the heart, a season of grief that meant most everything was dead or frozen, the trees had turned to skeletons, and the dark seemed endless.
So it was tonight as it was long ago.
We finished our time together singing of the hopes and fears of all the years, yet what we felt were those that belong to this year, to pain and despair. How good to sit together, to wonder together, to sing together and remember the boy was named Emmanuel.
God. With. Us.