– By James Powers –
I don’t know about most of you, but for my part, I tend to suffer from a little bit of Grinchiness this time of year. Of course… maybe I’m just Grinchy in general. I dunno; ask my friends. To be clear: I love Christmas, as well as the seasonal cheer that comes with it. The lights, the evergreenery, the sort of warm glow that spills out of windows and into the snow. But the festivity can easily become cloying because it keeps losing focus, at least on a broad societal level. Between the flatscreen TV sales, the ghastly pop covers of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” and the fact that our culture’s idea of when Christmas should be celebrated is so hilariously out of step with the liturgical calendar, I find myself sort of confused and annoyed by the whole thing about as often as I find myself charmed and consoled by it.
This conflict seems to be almost painfully obvious when it comes to Christmas carols, and the interminable discussion of when and where they are liturgically appropriate. Does God frown on the atmosphere of cheer that emanates from radios all over starting on Black Friday and ending promptly at 11:59 PM on the 25th? Is “Away In A Manger” more acceptable than “Jingle Bell Rock,” or should both get the boot in favor of endless repetitions of “O Come O Come Emmanuel?” Come to think of it, what if Wham’s holiday breakup anthem “Last Christmas” is in fact the enigmatic thorn in Paul’s flesh? And overall: how can we cultivate a properly Adventine spirit of preparation, and a Christmas spirit of true joy, in the dizzyingly busy atmosphere of contemporary holidays?
Well, dear readers, I must level with you – I’m not interested in divvying up various Christmas carols into the sheep and the goats. Personally, I’m sick to death of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and I derive some juvenile glee from the sheer nonsense that is “Last Christmas.” But that’s just personal taste; in terms of liturgical observation, of what I find helpful in cultivating the proper spirit in myself – of Advent or Christmas – neither those songs nor many of the ones in between make much difference either way. For some, and perhaps many, the traditional songs of this season can be very helpful in doing so. For me, and I think for more than a few others, I’ve heard so many of them playing so many times in the background at Applebee’s and Target and Starbucks that they’ve kind of lost their sparkle. So I’d like to take a somewhat different look at music and at how, during this time in particular, it can help direct us toward an awareness of our personal need for Christ, our hope in his coming, our joy at his arrival.
St. Francis de Sales, known in particular for his conviction that holiness can and must be pursued in the secular sphere, speaks often of the importance of our “considerations” and “affections” – that is, our thoughts as well as our feelings – in opening our hearts to Christ. In particular, this “opening” happens through meditative prayer. Now the point of such prayer isn’t so much to sit and try to think holy thoughts, as it is to just spend time with Christ in our hearts. To speak to him there, listen to him there, learn about and grow to love him there. Much as we would learn about and grow to love a friend with whom we share coffee every day. Consequently, de Sales encourages us to not only think about Christ in prayer, but to explore how he may be speaking to us in our feelings and imagination as well.
Art, obviously, is one of the main places where thought, imagination and emotion collide, and among all art forms music seems to be uniquely powerful. Especially today, when we can just have Spotify or Pandora streaming in the background, music has an ability to seep into the cracks of our consciousness, weaving feelings and associations around us sometimes without our even realizing it. Books, movies and visual art often require a certain degree of focused attention, but music can be as subtly influential as the air we breathe. And this subtle influence can work wonders for the “affections” and “considerations” that de Sales speaks of. We can use it as part of the atmosphere in which we pray, to help steer not only our thoughts toward Christ, but our feelings and imaginations as well. And I think there’s far more of it that we could be using for this purpose than we typically do.
I find that, in evaluating music and especially its place in spirituality, Christians often make the mistake of getting hung up almost exclusively on the lyrics and what they mean. A piece of music is deemed appropriate for prayer or worship only if it overtly talks about God, or at least leans on such clearly God-driven imagery as “fire,” “rain,” “endless love” etc. But lyrics are just an accidental part of music, not essential at all. Obviously, they carry a lot of weight when they are present: the lyrics of something like “Baby Got Back” (guaranteed to make me flee any wedding reception dance floor) communicate something very… ahem… specific. But imagine how different the effect would be if they were accompanied by lutes and birdsong. Or if they were dramatically recited by a stage actor without any musical accompaniment. The meaning of lyrics lives and dies within the emotional landscape of the music itself, and that “landscape” can take on an infinite variety of shapes.
All of which is to say – basing our use of music solely on lyrics’ literal meaning is limiting at best, downright stupid at worst. Music, with or without lyrics, is much like Scripture in that it communicates layers upon layers of different things – ideas, emotions, memory, subtext, stories, poetry, prayer – all stretching far beyond the bounds of mere words. And if such spiritual masters as Francis de Sales (also Ignatius Loyola, among others) not only permit but encourage us to stretch our prayer beyond mere thoughts or ideas, then I think we not only can but should explore beyond explicitly religious music for aids in doing so. That, dear readers, is what I’m really trying to get at here: if you find Christmas carols to be a little overplayed, or a little confusing as to where they belong in the liturgical calendar, or if in general Christmas just feels a bit like the same generic Starbucks red-cup cheer year after year, without much spiritual richness… I invite you to explore Spotify or your iPod or your vinyl collection for some unconventional meditation aids.
To give some examples, I’ve compiled here a brief list of albums which have stirred my own “considerations” and “affections” toward the mysteries of Advent and Christmas. Since we’re right on the verge of transitioning from one season to the other as I write this, I’ve arranged them in order from Advent-y to Christmas-y. Be aware, of course, that this is extremely subjective, and if you care to look up any of these albums and give them a listen, you may find yourself completely baffled as to what I’m talking about. Never fear; I’m sure you can find your own list of stuff that, while not overtly yuletide, is mysteriously perfect for you.
1) mewithoutYou – [untitled]
Advent serves, in many ways, as a microcosm of the Old Testament – a millennia-long period in which God’s chosen people found him, loved him, betrayed him and seemingly lost him over and over again. And sometimes it even feels like he lost and betrayed them. In other words, the anticipation that characterizes Advent isn’t necessarily just joyful. There is an agony to it, the agony of the Hebrews laboring under Roman occupation or Egyptian slavery, looking upward for a Messiah that keeps… not… coming. [untitled] perfectly expresses this slog toward redemption, in a huge slow wave of throbbing guitars and darkly poetic muttering. I honestly couldn’t tell you what any one of these songs is exactly about, but the whole album swims in portentous Scriptural allusions. And although mewithoutYou isn’t a Christian band per se, they’re every bit as haunted by God as their name suggests.
2) Sufjan Stevens – Carrie and Lowell
If you look at the full corpus of Sufjan Stevens’ work, you’ll find a lot of stuff that is beautiful, bizarre, sometimes sweet, occasionally disturbing and very often prayerful. A favorite of a priest friend of mine, the bittersweet Carrie and Lowell has become one of my favorites as well. It vibrates imperceptibly between appeals to God and appeals to Stevens’ departed mother, and as a result taps into the emotional lodestone of family – both human and divine – in both its beauty and its pain. Something, I’m sure, that many of us can strongly relate to during the holidays.
3) Bon Iver – 22, A Million
This album is very strange, let it be known. Bon Iver (aka Justin Vernon), who claimed his place as the king of indie folk crooners about a decade ago, embraces some really experimental sounds and song structures here. Do NOT drive yourself crazy trying to understand his lyrics. That said, the very first line we hear sung on this album is very important – an unnaturally high, almost birdlike voice intoning: “it might be over soon.” You can interpret that line any number of ways, but I’ve always heard it as an expression of hope, and as such I think it serves as an answer to the tortured questioning of the first album on this list. The wait might be almost over, even if it seems (as the third track states, quoting Psalm 22) that God is “so far from saving me.” From the hesitant hope of “22 Over S∞∞N” to the frustrated musing of “33 GOD” and, finally, the soulful understanding of “00000 Million” (yes the track titles are very weird), this album wanders up and down the singer’s relationship with God, with others, with himself.
4) Coldplay – Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends
I love Coldplay and I am unashamed. This album is probably my favorite of theirs – recorded in a church, among other places, it hums with the sort of dark warm color (like a Christmas tree at night) that I’ve always associated with this season, although it’s by no means a Christmas album. Viva La Vida oscillates almost from one track to the next between joyful and grim, though in the end joy unquestionably wins out (I mean c’mon, this is Coldplay after all). And in fact, with a lovely little coda after the very last track that directly echoes the opening track, it seems to say that beauty and goodness were always there, from beginning to end, even if the devil had his day for a bit there in the middle. Makes me think of the opening to John’s Gospel.
5) M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
If you’ve heard the main single from this album, indie-pop smash Midnight City, then you can probably guess that this album is very fun and very fluffy. Its wonderful cover art features a couple of children living in the world of an ‘80s fantasy/sci-fi film, something like Labyrinth or E.T. or The Neverending Story. And all the music seems to follow this vibe – the giddy synths and swooning vocals exude childlike wonder. What is more, lyrically it is full of the kind of anticipation and joy that, to me, are perfect for Advent and Christmas, rendered with childish simplicity in belted phrases such as “will you stay?!” “the city is my church,” and “when will you come home?” Frontman Anthony Gonzalez seems to be both seriously missing somebody and seriously stoked, and I don’t know what that’s all about, but it feels like a kid waiting to see Santa Claus or the baby Jesus. If I could approach life with a fraction of his excitement, then I would be a very happy guy indeed.
About the Author
James Powers is currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.
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