And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
I love this carol. I love singing it in the car -- by myself, with my boys. I love singing it with friends around me on the pews at church or walking together through a neighborhood of Christmas lights. As a child, I loved singing it with my family clustered around the piano, resting my chin on Mom's shoulder while she played.
The Glorias especially I like, the way you slalom through them, open-mouthed and all happy surprise and laughter.
And these guys sing a great version. I like the interweaving voices, the closely sliding harmonies. I like how the camera-work layers view over view like the cascading tones of a bell's vibration. I like the warm interior of the church, the intricately carved capitals on the pillars, the faces of the singers -- from Botticelli angel to fur-trader to robber king.
But that cowboy? Wearing a hat in church? At first I couldn't figure out what was wrong with this picture. But then I can't let it go. Have we lost this last small courtesy, this doffing for dinner and ladies and God? On the other hand, maybe he has a faith tradition that requires he cover his head in the presence of holiness? The ten-gallon a kind of cowboy yarmulke? Or maybe he's bald and embarrassed. And why would I let such a thing get in the way of the Glorias anyway?
Because for a minute it does get in my way. I'm so caught up by the look of the thing that what I see almost blocks the glorious sound for me. I have to close my eyes - or actually, I have to imagine what the sound I'm hearing would sound like if I had my eyes closed. Because I can't really close my eyes. I live through my eyes and can hardly bear to think of not coming at the world through them first and foremost.
But even just imagining how it would sound if I could only listen and not watch, I begin to wonder if my avid eyes are the egg and wing of all my restlessness. I wonder what else I'm not hearing because my busy-greedy eyes are always jumping me from shiny thing to shiny thing. Should I cancel my Netflix subscription? close my Facebook account? fast completely from the Internet? Would closing my eyes to all the flickering images I feed them daily, hourly, minute by minute, rest and calm this blarp and glitz that is the ADD zigzag of consciousness I'm buzzing through these days?
So this version? More pure, with less distractions? Or only the traditional distractions of stained glass and Christmas tree lights and various boys' unshaved faces. This enunciation of the carol is so lovely, these schoolboys' voices sweetly pristine untouched by years and weather. Baby-face angels with cowlicks.
Unhappily, these Irish choirboys do not include the second verse either, the one where the solid townsfolk get to ask, "Shepherds, why this jubilee?" I think it's no accident -- that Jubilee -- and am sad to hear it dropped from both iterations so far. I've been reading lately about the Year of Jubilee and I've remembered it's not mere jollity, not simply jubilation, or even general joy. It doesn't mean just Happy Days. Jubilee is more like a rehearsal for Heaven on Earth -- a Super Sabbath. God, knowing we can't yet sustain the kind of life He created us for, urges the children of Israel to just give that Life a try every fifty years:
Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?
Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked that thou cover him . . .
A jubilee year is a practice year where we get to pretend that greed and separation, hate and injustice are over forever, a kind of foretaste of the heavenly kingdom. A year when all debts are forgiven and all exiles returned to their homes. I don't live this. I don't know anyone who does.Isaiah 58:6-7
But I want to hear that jubilee in this carol. Which is not, after all, a carol of the angels, but of the landless sheepherders, outcast and lonely.
I want to hear the joy of the houseless men, migrants who don’t sleep beneath a roof like civilized folk, but come one night running into town, starshine still glowing in their eyes, singing Glorias in their rough, weather-worn voices. Their feet clattering against the stone. “We’ve heard angels!” they will tell anyone they see, their faces still struck with the wonder of it, as they try to say how it was for them, standing there in the dark night when the sky split into brilliance, the booming peal of a carillon of angel voices thundering so elementally that the very rocks beneath the shepherds' feet began to sing back the same song, as now the shepherds themselves cannot refrain from doing as their retelling becomes a re-echoing of the angels' refrain of Gloria in excelsis deo!
Come to Bethlehem! O come and see!