Christmas Eve, 2011

Several Decembers ago, a moment passed out behind the wheel taught me to keep myself alert and my radio on whenever I go on long drives, especially after dark. Usually it's tuned to a mediocre rock station, or a grainy classical frequency - but there inevitably comes a moment When that moment comes, I flip to something totally unlike what I'd normally listen to: a Christian station.

It's a habit that I really ought to break, because my motive for listening isn't because I love it, or even like it: I listen to them for the hatred. Sooner or later, there will come a moment when the music will let up, and the spoken words will begin, and that's the cue for the eight-minute countdown before the station reminds me of everything that is wrong with American Christendom.

There comes a report on "the issue of homosexuality." There comes a plug for Focus on the Family, or a unilateral condemnation of working mothers at a time when my mother was running the house because her husband was dying. There comes the break from the Oberammergau Passion Play to pray against the ACA and for the deliverance of Holy Mother Church from the oppression of the Pill. (I shit you not.) During the Holy Week, there comes... actually nothing at all, and that was the most infuriating part: an uninterrupted block of evangelical pop songs, with nothing even acknowledging that it's 3:00 in the afternoon on fucking Good Friday. ("Positive. Affirmative." Some other Christian buzzwords - at the one hour, of the one day, when Christians and Trent Reznor can join together in one voice to say that God is dead.)

It's not something I do outside of Connecticut-to-Massachusetts driving, for the very simple reason that there's usually other stations once I get off the corridor from Waterbury to Springfield. But last Christmas Eve, I discovered that a few exits into Pennsylvania the devil's music came to an end. And as I pounded through the stations with my good hand, my attention divided between the backlit numbers on the display and the harrowing road conditions of Wilkes-Barre, my worst fears were confirmed:

It was Christian stations all the way down. And with no way to resist it, I settled on the least noisy stations and settled down for a nice winter's Two Minutes Hate.

It never came.

On this night, of all nights, the Christian stations did something that I had never heard a Christian station do before: it acknowledged that the liturgical calendar exists. In their defense, they had no choice. It was Christmas Eve; even the secular stations would be playing the carols endlessly. So, because reactionary trend-following is the Christian radio thing to do, they were playing CCM remakes of Christmas hymns.

It made me mad. Because that's not how these things are supposed to go. Christian stations are supposed to infuriate me somehow. My wrath would not go unconsummated. And then, flipping through the stations -
Truly he taught us love for one another
His law is Love, and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break, for the slave he is our brother
And in his name all oppressions shall cease...
The version of "O Holy Night" that I remember most strongly is the one sung by Anne Murray, and it didn't include the third verse. In 27 years I don't know if I'd ever heard the third verse.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.
There was no Two Minutes Hate that night. I flipped through the stations until I'd heard it in full (there are only so many Christmas hymns that are recognizable enough to be made contemporary and Christian; sooner or later another station played those songs again.)

And then I sang it. Sang it with conviction. Sang it until I'd reached Williamsport. I tweaked the words a little bit and sang it again, to hear how they'd sound. I rearranged the verses and sang them out of order. I sang it and marveled at the beauty of it, and that I'd never heard it before. And the next evening, driving home, I called Mom to gush about the Cantique de Noël, and I called it the best Christmas song ever. (Which it is. It's one of those very rare songs that works as both a solo and a collective performance; regular enough that you can follow along without being musically literate, but with enough held high notes to show off your vibrato.)

There were moments before this. And I don't think I knew that there would be moments after it. But there was something that made that singalong in the final night of Pennsylvania Advent that was different. That was the first night that the Christian mythos that I'd grown up in the shallows of suddenly started to make sense.

I know that one day I'll be asked about when I became a Christian. And I know the bullshit answer: "Probably June 1984, when by faith through grace I was baptized at less than three months of age." But if I don't want to give a bullshit answer, I know I'll tell the story of that high-speed interstate night, singing "And in His name all oppressions shall cease."

That night was where this story begins.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

Thanks for the story and love your dreamless nights.Christmas Eve Messages