When I woke up yesterday morning, I had no idea that by that night I would find myself standing 20 feet away from Sufjan Stevens, bellowing out Christmas carols along with a sold-out crowd that was equal parts ugly holiday sweaters and plaid. But stranger things have happened. For example, on Saturday night, I was chatting online with Mormon missionaries. But that’s a story for another time.
It’s been a while since I’ve fully gotten into Christmas. I’m not a true Grinch, but my general attitude toward Christmas has for a while been something like “meh.” I do not own any holiday-specific attire and have never attended an ugly sweater party, in defiance of my Caucasian heritage (see Stuff White People Like #118). I don’t hate the season, I just find it difficult to enjoy it as much as I’d like.
There are several reasons for this. First, as an obnoxious seminary graduate and liturgical theologian, I can be militaristic in my pursuit of a pure Advent season. I’ve lightened up about that in the last year or two, but even my best intentions have sometimes led me to squash holiday cheer like a cute but out-of-place bug.
Second, I get really overwhelmed by the commercialization of the holidays, not just on a moral conceptual level but on a personal level. I hate the assumptions that holiday advertisers make about gender. (I griped about this here back in 2011.) This year, I’m thankful for The Makery, a new startup out of Durham that makes buying local, handmade goods easy. Check it out.
Third, I’m a pastor, and although this is my first church, I’ve been in the business for a while. Although the holiday season is insane for everyone, there’s a special kind of anxiety that grips church workers around Advent. In the month of December, we are holding 31 worship services by my count–and I’m the minister of worship. It’s going to be hard for me to let go and enjoy much of that when I’m partially responsible for making it happen.
But right now, on November 26, Advent has not even started, and I’m listening to Christmas music in my office and just finished most of my holiday shopping.
Yesterday, through a series of ridiculous events that started as a normal Sunday afternoon working at a coffee shop, a friend and I ended up making the hour-long drive to Saxapahaw and the Haw River Ballroom to pick up tickets that had randomly come available through friends to the sold-out “Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant On Ice” featuring Sufjan Stevens.
From cheering as crowd members spun “The Wheel of Christmas” to select sing-a-long carols to hearing Sufjan perform familiar Christmas songs as well as original holiday tunes, I found myself getting caught up in the holiday spirit. I had landed at an event that was a perfect mix of boisterous fun and, believe it or not, theological depth.
The cover of the songbook we got when we came in sported an excerpt from John Wesley’s “Directions for Singing,” from The United Methodist Hymnal–”Sing lustily and with good courage. Be aware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.” I had a slightly embarrassing Methodist geekout.
The coolest moments of the show for me came when on two occasions Sufjan gathered his band for an a capella interlude–of a Lenten hymn. I was not expecting to hear “Ah, Holy Jesus” at a Christmas sing-a-long, but it was incredible, and somehow, it fit.
For me, king Jesus, was thy incarnation,
Thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation;
Thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion,
For my salvation.
The Christian year is cyclical; if we’ve been in the church for much time at all, and even if we haven’t, we probably know the whole story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection at all times, even as we walk through certain seasons in the liturgical calendar. Even as we journey toward Bethlehem, we know that beyond that lies Calvary. To pause in a celebratory event to sing about the crucifixion, especially a verse that frames it in the incarnation, was totally appropriate.
Sometimes I can be a killjoy, because for whatever reason I seem to have made it my mission never to allow myself or others to forget the reality of suffering. Although the holidays are supposed to be happy, often they are also the time when loss and loneliness are felt most acutely. But sometimes I dwell too long on that and fail to remember that the purpose ought to be to embrace the whole of human life and the Christian story so that we might have a more mature grasp of the meaning of joy.
Sufjan sang “Ah, Holy Jesus” and “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” but then he moved on to leading us in rousing renditions of “Joy to the World” and “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas.” And in that, I think he taught me a little something about what it is to hold together joy and sorrow in a season where both are so palpable.
And so, although I hope my heart didn’t start out two sizes too small, I thank Sufjan for giving me back a normal human heart for the season of Christmas.
I’ll leave you with this: I’m a Christmas unicorn! Find the Christmas unicorn! You’re a Christmas unicorn, too! It’s all right. I love you.