Sheet music background

Christmas worship in a minor key

Tracie Jernigan, YTI Seasonal Lecturer in Worship Studies

Winter 2019-2020 Inscribed

All I want for Christmas is a carol in a minor key.

I’m not sure why, but the minor carols have been grabbing my heart and mind this holiday season. I think it’s because the act of worship is complicated during Advent. Do we sing and pray as Israelites waiting for the Messiah? Or as Christians waiting for the peaceful Kingdom illustrated in Isaiah 11? Do we jump to carols of celebration since we quickly tire of their public consumption before December 25? Worship can cause intellectual whiplash if we mix these three expressions of the Incarnation without thought and direction.

A layered season of waiting

Planning worship gatherings in December is difficult.

As Christians, we worship God-with-us every Sunday. But during Advent, we sit in a layered time of waiting, knowing, and celebrating. A newly penned song by Nichole Nordeman beautifully illustrates the nature of Advent. The song is entitled “We Watch, We Wait,” and was released on Nordeman’s 2019 Christmas album, “Fragile.”

The song opens with a verse about the Israelites waiting for the Promised One. The Israelites together sing “Emmanuel, we breathe Your name.” The song moves to its’ namesake chorus: “We watch, we wait, we ask, we ache, God with us, someday, we watch, we wait.” The second verse moves to Mary with the newborn baby, “heaven held inside my hands.” Mary sings “Emmanuel, I breathe your name.” The chorus then repeats but replaces “someday” with “this day,” because Emmanuel has appeared as flesh on earth.

At this point in the song, the writer inserts a sound bite of the intro to Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor. The weeping strings seem to interrupt our celebration to remind us of the bitter end to His life. The third verse weaves another people-in-waiting into the story: “a longing heart, a world on fire, we want to see your face again.” The people together sing “Emmanuel, we breathe your name.” The waiting has resumed, although the spirit of God-with-us remains to offer hope for a world reconciled to God in the end.

Layers of waiting, incarnation, and furthered anticipation form an arc in the lyrics of the song. How can we explore these layers in worship?

Waiting, celebrating … and further anticipation

We can acknowledge the somber nature of waiting. Waiting isn’t necessarily a sad or depressing place to sit, but it can be reverent and counter to the pervading celebration culture of December.

We can look for ways to express and practice peace. This might look like a slower pace to worship, or including slower, reflective worship elements, or doing things together in worship that are different than your normal liturgy.

We can point to the reasons for celebration in our midst – answered prayers, faithful church family, musical and artistic gifts – and slow down long enough to see these through the eyes of a people to whom God has come.

I choose to sit with the minor key carols that speak of anticipation. They slow down the season for me, and in my waiting, help me breathe in the God-with-us moments of joy.

Tracie Jernigan (M.Div./M.M., Baylor University) is Seasonal Lecturer in Worship Studies for YTI. She serves as Associate Pastor of Worship Arts, at The Summit Church in Sylva, N.C.

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