Wednesday, December 10, 2014


A church in town holds a Blue Christmas service each year. This is for folks who have lost loved ones around the holiday season, or in the past year, or are just not generally feeling very ebullient around Christmas for a variety of reasons, from depression to seasonal affective disorder to grief. I attend this service practically every year.

I feel like a bit of an imposter, sometimes. I did lose some relatives around Christmas. My grandmother died of cancer on the 7th of December. That same year, on the 23rd, my cousin wrapped his car around a pole and effectively died that day, though he spent years in a coma before the official end. That was over 25 years ago, though. I still remember, but I'm not dealing with powerful waves of grief over it.

No, I'm afraid the real reason I attend the service has largely to do with the fact that, as a musician, I spend most of my holiday season putting on Christmas for everybody else. This is the one time I get to sing Silent night and hold a candle and not play the organ. I can sit in the pew and not be fiddling with organ stops, running from instrument to instrument or from worship space to worship space, checking the time all morning, making sure not to miss a cue, or a downbeat. I can actually think, or meditate, or pray, without getting a poke in the ribs from somebody because I'm supposed to be playing music during the prayer. I get to do what the rest of you get to do. Once a year.

That may seem like a very utilitarian reason for being there, but I think I end up crying practically every year. A couple of years ago a pastor friend of mine died. During the blue Christmas service, some six months later, I finally got a chance to light a candle for him. I couldn't do that during our All Saint's Day service with everyone else because I was playing the organ to provide a comforting atmosphere for the congregation to do that. Because this isn't my church, I become one of the congregation. As the organist played, and I lit the candle, I realized I was finally getting a chance to say goodbye to a friend.

It is a small congregation. I don't think attendance usually rises much above 10 or 12. One reason surely must be that there is still a stigma about admitting you might be a little depressed this holiday season. It takes some strength to say to a society that thinks there is something wrong with you if you aren't hohohoing with the rest of them, look, this is just the way it is. Deal with it. I am.

The artist in me finds this appealing. Life isn't one vast plunge through sheer joy; it is visited by plenty of sorrow. We can try to pretend it isn't so, or we can acknowledge that. Generally, works of great art by great artists show us this dual experience of life. It doesn't take a break for Christmas, either. The light shines in the darkness. My friend liked to say that you can't have a light without a dark to put it in (He said he was quoting Woody Guthrie). At Christmastime, ever since my teen years, I find myself meditating on the darkness in the world, made all the more apparent by the presence of light in it. How far short we fall as a species in performing simple acts of humanity; hoarding our resources, ruining our environment, making war on each other, unable to get along, or to show the slightest concern for other members of our human family. The light shines in the darkness; the light makes the darkness all the more evident, and all the more obviously dark.

The reason I am telling you all this is because we are taking a journey through several works with the title "Pastoral" this season. This week, we are examining the most well known and profound of them, by J. S. Bach. Bach's piece began with the same evocation of shepherds and serenity, but continued with a second movement of peace and joy. Now comes something more arresting.

Bach is in a minor mode now, giving us a touching arioso full of pathos and suffering. Why?

I suggested previously that Bach was telling us a story, that story being the Christmas story, as found in Luke chapter 2. In it, the shepherds are tending their sheep when they receive a heavenly announcement. Go see a baby lying in a manger, say a horde of angels. Don't have to tell us twice! Say the shepherds (Yes, but this is the Baroque era, say the angels, all text must be repeated in short fragments and repeated and repeated until you come to a cadence.) So the shepherds run off to Bethlehem. They see the precious, innocent little baby in the arms of its beatific mother. Then something else...

Mary remembered these things, pondering them in her heart.

What did she ponder? And what was the nature of her pondering?

If you are a musical theologian, you might want to remind people that this story which begins in promise will have a powerful, dramatic end. It's a story your congregation knows, and they've been taught that everything hinges on the eventual death of that baby for the sins of fallen humanity. For Baroque Lutherans, that was the lynchpin of the whole story. The climax. The point.

That idea is older than Luther. Even Luke has a prophet named Simeon hold the week-old infant and tell Mary that she is overjoyed by the birth of her beautiful new baby but that she will eventually be visited by grief; that someday "a sword shall pierce your own soul, too." She is going to know great sorrow, and witness the cruel death of this son of hers. Was that what she was thinking about, a grim foreknowledge mixed in with the bliss of the tale's opening? This is only the start, for beyond this joy there is tragedy to come, and behind that, and even more profound joy. And from this vantage point we get just a glimpse....

There are even Medieval Christmas Carols reminding us of the other pole of the story, the part that will be celebrated on Easter, in which everything we see at Christmas is a symbol of that story which is to come. I'm thinking specifically here of "The Holly and the Ivy" but there are others.

So as Bach continues his tale, or, I suggest, Luke's story, he, too, pauses to meditate on the profounder issues at work here, to plumb the depths of sorrow in the midst of this Christmas joy.

The story so far....
Bach: Pastorale  part one
Bach: Pastorale  part two

and now...
Bach: Pastorale  part three

continue to part six of ten and the glorious conclusion of Bach's pastorale

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