The holiday season is almost upon us, like a sweaty dog. The Christmas lights and jingly songs blare their good cheer into the darkness, but they don’t seem to penetrate it.
This year, we will decorate the tree together as a family, and I will try and snap pictures of my little boy looking angelic while hanging a straw star onto pine branches. (This seems to be more of a challenge as the years go on: he is more prone to making monster faces when there is a camera present. This, too, makes me smile). My family will gather at Christmas, and we will exchange gifts, eat far too much amazing food (and swear we will eat less next year), and watch the Queen’s speech, as we do every year in our home in South West England.
It holds comfort and joy. Christmas, for us, is a harmonious symphony, repeated every year with minimal variation.
But for others, Christmas tunes have been punctured by the rattle of gunfire; the devastating news of an unwanted diagnosis; the death of a friend; or painful memories from the past. I cannot sing ‘Joy to the world’ in my head while there is a discordant bass line that’s thumping throughout the world. Syria, Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, Mali. They hold such darkness that it is hard to remember there is a light that will overcome it. It is hard to sing ‘tidings of comfort and joy’ without picturing a refugee child, huddled and shivering, or the relatives of those killed in Beirut, comfortless, weeping.
My friend, writer Kath Cunningham, talks about joy ‘in a minor key’. If you’ve ever tried to play ‘Joy to the world’ in a minor key you’ll know how wrong it sounds. Just that extra semitone down can make all the difference.
Sometimes life is like that. We have joy, but in a minor key. This life mixes up the best and beautiful with the ugly and evil of the world, and sometimes they play at the same time.
As I approach Advent, the season of waiting and in-between, I want to be honest about the joy and the sorrow together. It doesn’t work to pretend that everything is okay when it is not; nor that everything is bad, because it isn’t. We have both. We have joy, but in a minor key. We have sorrow, but with a resolution into a major key.
As I approach Christmas, I want to remember the darkness of the world, and sit with those who are in mourning. But I will also light a candle and remember Jesus, the light who was not overcome by darkness. Whenever the world looks particularly dark, it is not a trivial thing to believe that evil will not have the last word. Faith can be an act of defiance and boldness. Lighting a candle does not solve anything, but it does help to refocus on the truth, and truth has power.
It takes discipline to reject both the jangly tunes and funeral march that this world offers, and listen out for a melody that encompasses redemption. This world holds pain; but it is not without hope.
There’s something about slowing down, lighting candles in the dark and listening to God in the silence that makes me hear that song once again: joy, in a minor key. But this time it sounds more beautiful.
(Kath Cunningham’s Advent thoughts which inspired me are also worth reading.)