One of the things I love about Christmas, of course, is the music. I love it all—the fun, seasonal stuff and also the beautiful carols that celebrate the birth of an infant king. Because these songs are repeated each year, I find that they grow in meaning. Each year adds another layer of significance as my own lived experience creates new dimensions and impact for me.
I was teaching a voice lesson recently, listening to the pure, beautiful voice of a beloved student sing, O Holy Night.
That’s always been one of my favorite songs, and it’s figured several times in important spiritual awakenings I’ve had. But whenever I hear it, there’s one experience I always relive, one I hope I’ll not ever forget.
I grew up with a large extended family. We lived near both sets of grandparents, and I had lots of aunts, uncles, and cousins. We got together frequently and I have very happy memories of those gatherings. One of the big events each year was the Christmas party, something that was often rotated from home to home given the size and demands of entertaining.
My maternal grandmother loved music. My aunts were the same, and they frequently sang together. Because of that, we always had lots of singing at these gatherings, everything from quartets to solos, and the evening almost always featured a talent show.
One year, when I was probably sixteen or seventeen, it was my family's turn to host the party. We had dinner and then gathered near the piano for the music. I sang that night. I don’t remember what it was, but I had been taking voice lessons for some time, and I do remember that it was somewhat demanding and difficult. I remember being quite pleased with my technique and performance and sat down, feeling that I was quite the rising star, a pro among well-meaning, talented amateurs.
For reasons I’ve never entirely understood, my grandma’s neighbor/best friend and her husband always came to our family gatherings. This year, was no different in that the gentleman came. If memory serves, I think he had recently lost his wife, so it must have been a very tender and painful time for him.
That year, I think for the first time, he decided to join in the talent show. I don’t remember him doing that previously, but perhaps I am wrong. Regardless, this year he decided to sing, “O Holy Night.”
This isn’t an easy song. It’s quite long, and was written for a trained voice. It requires tremendous breath control and a serious range.
This gentleman was not a trained, or even experienced, singer. He started the song, singing in a weak, quivering voice. I remember a slightly uncomfortable feeling settling over the crowd. It seemed clear that this was going to be a struggle for him. I think my cousins, my sister, and I exchanged some wide-eyed “this-is-awkward” glances that teens specialize in.
Being a teen, and therefore being gifted with supreme overconfidence, I smiled benignly, but was fairly condescending in my inner assessment. I wasn’t cruel, but I was certainly aware of how far he fell below my own lofty standards.
Partway during the song, he stopped singing--just froze. I think his voice cracked and then he got nervous, then got lost. The song is quite long and a bit repetitious, so it’s easy to do.
The poor man stood frozen in front of this large group of people with panic in his eyes. I do remember that very clearly. Now that I’m older I also realize that he had something else in his eyes: shame. He felt foolish but didn’t know what to do or how to proceed.
No one else knew what to do either. It felt tense and awkward. I remember looking down at the ground, feet scuffling, people fidgeting, etc. A few people fixed encouraging smiles on their faces.
The awkward silence grew to an unbearable level. Then my dad jumped up. He ran over, put his arm around this man and joined in the chorus: “Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices….”
Dad has a nice voice but he's not a trained singer or anything. He didn’t generally perform solos in public, so it wasn’t like this was in his comfort zone. But he started singing and the man joined him. They finished the song together and there was thunderous applause.
All my smug, self-aggrandizing thoughts were gone. I was a knuckle-headed, clueless teen in many ways. And my dad often drove me crazy at that age. But even I knew something special had happened.
By the end of the song, that man’s face had changed. He smiled and practically glowed. I’m sure it wasn’t because he felt he had done an amazing job. I’m sure he was aware of just how far he’d fallen short. I believe that he smiled because he felt loved. Because someone else had reached out to help him, and was invested and caring enough to stand there and finish the song with him, word for word, note for note.
My dad gave that man more than a hand. He gave him an arm around his shoulder. He gave him his dignity, far more effectively than any well-meant words could have.
Angel voices, indeed.
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