Blue(s) Christmas

"And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."

Mark 13:24-27

November 27, 2020, Words By: Joel Kiekintveld, Image By: Unknown

We don’t listen to Christmas music in my house until after Thanksgiving. On Black Friday morning the prohibition is lifted and Over the Rhine’s “Darling (Christmas is Coming)” is among the first songs that pierce the silence each year. However, it’s not a Christmas record that is providing the soundtrack to the opening days of Advent for me this year, it is an old gospel blues tune.

It has been a 
                                                    for all of us. Everyone.  

The arrival of Covid-19 has altered everything. Months of isolation have worn down even the most introverted. At-home everything (work, school, life) has left people frazzled and tired. The virus came during Lent, the first of the two great annual Christian seasons we celebrate, and is now casting a pall—8 months later—over the other. We speak of “the before times,” the “new normal,” and we long for the future, even if it is unknown. 

On top of the pandemic, this apocalyptic year has exposed the continued racial inequity and the depth of the political division in the U.S. 2020 has been a year more given to complaint than to celebration, and as it draws to a close, it is hard to feel much like it’s the most wonderful time of the year. 

In the extreme north, where I live, Christmas arrives during the darkest part of the year. Lacking in natural light, the holidays seem to overcompensate with cheery music. Everywhere you go sleighbell laden ditties and happy holiday hokum can be heard. Rarely, aside from Elvis’ “Blue Christmas,” do you hear the blues. 

Blues music is designed to express pain, not commercial Christmas cheer. Using the tri-tones of the flatted fifth, blues gives a soulful and sorrowful voice to woe and suffering, making it the music of lament. After all, as James Cone notes, the blues arose from “black people’s attempt to carve out a significant existence in a very trying situation.” 

And underneath the sorrow, of both the blues and lament, is a yearning for something different, something better. As Soong-Chan Rah says of lament, it “Recognizes the struggles of life and cries out for justice against existing injustices.” Neither are about complaining or giving up; they are the first honest steps toward the hope.

This week’s gospel text (Mark 13:24-37), the first of Advent, greets us in the trying situation of this year by reminding us of Jesus’ call to “Keep Watch.” This encouragement to open our eyes and be alert comes to us in these Covid-times when we’d rather look away, close our eyes, and check out. Who wants to see more? Who wants to look more intently at what is going on? Who has the energy to enter in? Jesus must be joking, right?!?!

Spinning on my turntable is an old tune (Blind Willie Johnson 1928), played by North Mississippi Allstars, “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning.” The song draws on Jesus’ words to keep watch in Matthew 25:1-13. 

Keep your lamp a-trimmed and burning (3x)
See what the Lord has done

Brother don’t be worried
Brother don’t be hurried
Brother don’t be worried
See what the Lord has done

As Advent begins and this year draws to a close, we are encouraged to keep watch. Rather than opening our eyes more, we might instead be drawn to the blindness offered by the alternate reality Christmas music (and the holiday itself) offers. We might prefer to dream of a white Christmas instead of singing the blues. 

But if we can resist the pull to extinguish our lamps, in favor of Christmas lights, we might be able to access the honest power of lament. After all, it was in the darkness of night that the Magi could follow the Star of Bethlehem to the birth of something new. It was in the cold and silence of the evening that the shepherds learned of their salvation. 

If we are able to resist the temptation of blindness, and step into the painful honesty of lament, we’ll have the chance to see what God is doing—the good news—in the hard place that is 2020. And we can join God in that work, leaving behind our tendencies to worry, control, and do our own thing (be hurried).  

As advent arrives, so does Jesus. He comes saying “Watch!” and singing the blues… “Keep your lamp a-trimmed and burning, See what the Lord has done.”

About The Author

Joel Kiekintveld