It’s early evening. A canned choir is singing in our living room. The stereo plays “In Dulci Jubilo,” and the Cambridge Singers sing:
“In dulci jubilo,
“Nun singet und seid froh,
“Unsers Herzens Wonne…”
My eyes keep landing on our little Nativity set, which is on our sofa table. Because after all, this is what the choir is singing about.
The manger scene’s plastic shepherds are kneeling. Mary looks exhausted. The wisemen are holding Monopoly game pieces because I lost their gifts when I was 9 years old. Poor Joseph has been severely disfigured by dogs who mistook him for a chew toy.
“Leit in praesepio,
“Matris in gremio.
“Alpha es et O…”
My mind is stuck in ancient times. I am thinking about when mankind wrote these choral melodies, during the age of sheep-tallow candles and burlap tunics. Back when your average working stiff had a life expectancy of 31 years, and people’s phones couldn’t even shoot decent video.
These songs belong to our ancestors. Songs like “Lumen Hilare,” ”Adeste Fideles,” “Veni Emmanuel,” “Jesus Refulsit Omnium.”
You might not recognize the titles, but you’d know the melodies. Some tunes predate the plow, Greek fire, the printing press, and the Dave Clark Five.
“Jesus Refulsit Omnium” was composed in 336 AD.
“Veni Emmanuel” traces its origins backward 1,200 years.
“Adeste Fideles” harkens to the seventeenth century.
But “In Dulci Jubilo” is my favorite. It was first introduced in 1328, and would have been chanted by monks while a Bubonic Plague was making a serious attempt to wipe out the human race.
Somehow these ancient Yuletide carols have lasted and are our link to early man. Amazingly these chants survived for millennia without transistor radios, LP records, or eight-track cassettes. How? Kingdoms arose and fell. The horse and buggy gave way to the ‘76 Chevette. And Western humans are still singing archaic lyrics about something that happened in a barn in Bethlehem.
“I’m going for a walk,” I say to my wife.
It’s a cold, moonless night. I can see my breath in the darkness. I’m listening to the Cambridge Singers on my cellphone speakers now, watching icy drizzle fall on the nightscape. And I’m wondering what the choir on my phone is actually singing about. I don’t speak German or Latin, so I can’t understand the lyrics.
The only thing I actually do understand is that it’s nine days until Christmas, and the world feels unreal.
It seems like only yesterday that it was March, and society was closing down. A pandemic was upon us and we had a million questions about what would happen next. We still have questions.
Yesterday I looked up the most common questions of 2020. Among them, I found these: “When is this virus going away?” “Will the world ever go back to normal?” And “I have COVID, what happens now?”
Oh, if only we had answers. But we don’t. And don’t listen to anyone who claims they do. Enormous dogfights have erupted among those who claim to have it all figured out. Brother thrashes against brother. Neighbor against neighbor. Meanness is on the rise. Hell is only a remote control click away.
I’m embarrassed to admit how depressed I became this year due to all this. It makes me feel like a weakling confessing this, especially when I think about what others are going through. But it has been an uphill mental battle.
I have friends whose parents are dying of COVID-19 as I write these words. I have family members still getting over the aftereffects. Tonight, while I was tapping out these very paragraphs, I received two separate texts from friends whose parents were taken to the ER this afternoon with coronavirus.
“O Jesu parvule,
“Nach dir ist mir so weh,
“Tröst mir mein Gemüte…”
I keep walking until I reach the end of our street, then I take a right. I see something in the distance. It’s a shining light, tiny, but radiating through the soft rain. I move toward it like a mosquito heading for an electric bug zapper light.
The far-off beacon is located in a nearby neighborhood. And within this obsidian, suffocating blackness it is the only thing I can see.
Soon, I am in a nondescript subdivision. Only a few decades ago this development was a pasture, but now is a cul de sac with sidewalks, drainage ponds, and public receptacles for dog poo.
I finally reach the source of the light and I’m not surprised at what I find. The light comes from a giant electrified Nativity scene.
I stand on the sidewalk just to take it in because the lawn-art display is not finished being erected. A guy is still in his yard, setting it up with his son and daughter. The man is smoking a cigarette, wearing a wool cap, fiddling with extension cords. His kids are adjusting figurines so that they look just right.
Joseph stands on the left, Mary kneels on the right, the infant rests in the center. Each figurine beams, and the brightness can be seen from, literally, a mile away.
I am stopped in my footsteps, staring at this ancient tableau. The guy doesn’t even notice me watching from across the street because he and his family are also gazing at this humble barnyard scene. We are caught up in its simple warmth.
“Unsers Herzens Wonne,
“Leit in praesepio,
“Und leuchtet als die Sonne…”
Maybe I’m reaching for a deeper meaning here; a meaning within this tired and angry world. But when I stare at this scene…
I think I understand why choirs still sing about it.