2017 is not the first year I’ve been absent from church a lot – my fluctuating conditions mean that sometimes it’s just not possible to attend, or at least not a good idea. And this year, my wife has had health challenges of her own too. But I think this is the first time I’ve missed the entire of Advent and Christmas. So it’s been an unusual one. Of course, we’ve engaged in the usual secular activities, with the tree and presents for the children, and a lovely Christmas dinner with family. And not making it to church doesn’t stop us reflecting on the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, and its continued, and frankly disturbing, relevance to modern life. But it’s definitely lacking something without the immersion in the story that comes from the teaching and fellowship with other Christians.
For me, as someone who was once a Salvationist, Christmas is very strongly associated with music. There’s no way these days that I could cope with the gruelling routine of Advent in the Salvation Army. I quite honestly don’t miss being freezing cold and exhausted almost to the point of collapse on a shopping precinct, playing an instrument that feels like it’s made of ice. Nor do I have any inclination to go back to being involved in so many carol services that they all blur together into one big Christmassy mush. But the music itself, yes, I miss that very much. And this time around, there’s been none.
The contrast between these extremes is noteworthy. Religious music is first and foremost intended to be a form of worship. I feel it can connect with the soul in a unique way, which in turn facilitates a connection between us and God. It’s certainly possible to worship without music, but as far as I am personally concerned, the two will always be inextricably linked. To have gone through December without singing or playing a single Christmas song (whether a traditional carol or something more recent) is deeply unsatisfying. Not because it’s a deviation from routine, but because the music provides a spiritual focus and context for a festival which, in its current form, can so easily become just another excuse for a spending spree.
However, context is one thing; meaningfulness is another. And when you have too much of a good thing, its meaning can get lost. When you’re playing on autopilot, how much of an emotional connection can that make? When all you want to do is go back home to sit by the fire, take some painkillers for your overworked legs, and put Vaseline on your split lip, can you really say you’re focused? How many times have we played, sung or heard some carols without even taking in the words? Think about one we all teach our children: Away in a Manger. It’s complete nonsense. Why would we think that Jesus didn’t cry as a baby? Someone so outspoken as an adult would surely have screamed his lungs out as an infant. Yet it’s so much a part of the Christmas routine that we just carry on singing, while we try to work out how we’re going to seat nine dinner guests around our six place table.
Now, this is absolutely not about bashing carol services, or street playing, or the Salvation Army. On the contrary, this year I think I realise more than ever how important it is that we include a lot of music in our celebrations, and that we share that music with the community around us. Many of the songs we sing and play have stood the test of time because the poetic writing of others provides a foundation for our own personal reflection, and the well-known tunes evoke familiar feelings which draw us into the moment. Christmas without the music is, to me, incomplete. But we must be careful to ensure that we’re not just going through the motions – that we do genuinely connect. Doing too much leads to detachment as easily as doing too little can.
I didn’t intentionally opt out of involvement at church this Advent; it’s just how it played out. But despite all the time that has passed since I left the SA, this season still brings with it the anxiety of wondering how I’m going to make it through without breaking down. Back then, I didn’t have a diagnosis or any other insight into why I found it so draining, but I’m sure I can’t have been the only one. These days even a little extra activity brings health consequences that are impossible to ignore, meaning that I have a difficult decision every week, between going to church for spiritual food, or staying at home for physical rest. And as such, it was all too easy to find that it was December 25 already and I’d missed the whole thing. Finding a balance is hard. For Christmas to be meaningful and inclusive, we need some quiet and time for reflection, so that we can truly hear the music.