Carol: a song of joy or devotion.
Hymn: A song of praise, especially to God.
This year, my friends felt a special compulsion to sing Christmas hymns and carols together. Perhaps it was not special or unique for them, but I do not remember times in past Penn State Decembers where there was so much singing going on. As one who has recently lamented the semester schedule (which, in fall and spring, I love dearly) that prevents me via Thanksgiving break, weekend assigned trip, and Christmas break from attending the advent services at Oakwood Presbyterian, these nights of singing have been especially valued. After a Navigator dance party, we gathered in the Plex living room and sang through all of the songs on a website of lyrics, Abi and Ben Reimold leading the singing with their creative vocal improvisations. I don't have practice in singing so there were times I sat quiet and listened. The other time was this Wednesday during the annual camp out, moved indoors this year because of the cold. Justin and Ben built a lovely fire in the Park Ave Cru house fire place and we attempted to sing with music sheets found in someone's guitar case.
I've been a bit leery of Christmas this year, disgruntled with false expectations of perfect felicity and joy. I no longer enjoy songs about "winter" fun but find them rather frustrating. What I've found in the the carol and hymn singing is a patient reminder that Christmas does not contain undiluted or, perhaps it is better to say a joy that comes from lack of experience. Rather, the joy is coming from heavy experience, from the pain of the incarnation rather than an idea of its ease. It is a wonder because incarnation is not "easy", but comes in the most natural of hard ways: through birth. Nor do these songs pretend that the world is well, even at their most joyful or content. Rather, they are full of imperatives: rejoice, joy to the world/ let men their songs employ. Or "the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight." One has to be reminded that joy does indeed come out of the birth of Jesus. Remembering against every day life is not natural. There is fear involved in this salvation.
"O Come, O Come Emmanuel" may be my favorite, poetic words with a lovely, mournful melody.
O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
The writer acknowledges that there are gloomy clouds and death has a dark shadow, things that humanity cannot "put to flight". It is answered by "Emmanuel shall come to thee, Oh Israel". Hearing Abi sing this while I grew sleepy on the Plex couch was a gift. I did not sing but closed my eyes and prayed with the voices around me for such an answer to be given.
Even "Joy to the World", a song very exuberiant in the celebration of victory presents a request in the midst of the joy:
No more let sins and sorrows grow,The Christ has come but all is still to be made right.
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
There is a double presence displayed in these songs. There is the joy in what has been given. There is the hope of what is to come. We remember the longing Israel had for the Messiah, to "ransom captive Israel", knowing that we still sing that line for ourselves, in hope that the Messiah then is returning for us someday.
And in the knowledge of difficult life and the command to rejoice, there is great comfort.