My mother wanted me to be a concert pianist. So off to lessons I went, with Thompson drills and Bach inventions to practice. The rule was 30 minutes a day. I’d close the door – and as long as my mom heard music, she was fine. So after a quick dash through the assigned playing, I would start tinkering around – and for some reason I was drawn not just to the Beatles or Burt Bacharach but also to Christmas carols, even in the swelter of summer.
With the press of life and work, I don’t touch a piano very often these days. But starting around Thanksgiving, I’m at the keyboard almost every day, playing my own little soulful arrangements of “Jingle Bells,” “Silent Night,” “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” (“The Christmas Song”), and those newfangled Chip Davis/Mannheim Steamroller covers. When my staff comes over for our annual party, I gather them around the piano and play for us to sing together until they slip away. I just get lost or mesmerized in it. I drift back through the decades and across the state to my grandparents’ home. I get chills recalling caroling with neighborhood kids.
And then in our worship services, when the organ thunders (or whispers) and together we sing “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” and when we lift our candles with the lights turned down and gently raise our voices to sing “Silent Night,” I am flooded with tears of joy, mixed in with the inevitable sorrow; my knees wobble a little and I simply cannot speak. Just the melodies resonate deeply. The harmonies melt something hard in me.
But then it’s the words, elegantly chosen, poetically poignant. “Why lies he in such mean estate?” “That mourns in lonely exile here.” “Round yon virgin mother and child.” Even the secular songs: “Through the years we all will be together.” “Oh what fun it is to ride … ” “Used to laugh and call him names” – which seems silly and fun to sing, but I was the kid who got laughed at.
Still, my book Why This Jubilee? wouldn’t have happened were it not for a stray remark made over dinner by Kevin Siers, Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist, whom I barely know. Somehow he started musing on his favorite phrase from a carol: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” I preached on that soon thereafter, and ever since have been jotting down reflections on the music that transports me to some holy, shimmering, thin place.
And in the same way people, with little to no prodding, will stand near a piano and bellow out a song or two, even those who normally don’t sing or say they can’t sing, I’ve discovered lots of us enjoy probing the lyrics, exploring the words we’ve known by heart forever. And so I’m happy with my little book. My prayer is that it helps people venture into that haunting, lovely territory I visit each December.
James C. Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and adjunct professor of preaching at Duke Divinity School. He is the author of Why This Jubilee?: Advent Reflections on Songs of the Season; Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs: Saints and Their Stories; and Yours Are the Hands of Christ: The Practice of Faith.