Christmas, sorrow, and a song

December 16, 2012 | 54 comments

I’ve been meaning to ask this for two years, but have never gotten around to it. Now seems to be as good of a time as any: Can anyone tell me what this song is?

(If you can’t see the player, here is a link to the recording.)

During Advent of 2010 I had EWTN on the TV in the background as I did some Christmas decorating (read: I was probably surfing the web while the kids dug through ornament boxes) and it played a live broadcast of a Mass that was, if I recall correctly, at the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Whatever it was I had been doing while footage of the Mass played in the background, I stopped when the choir began that song. I was so drawn to it, I was desperate to know what it was — so desperate that I actually had the forethought to grab my voice recorder and hold it up to the television so that I could ask all the sophisticated people who read my blog to enlighten me as to the name of this captivating piece of music.

I’ve thought about that song many times since I first recorded it. In all these years, I never did put my finger on why I was so drawn to it. It’s beautiful, yes. But there was something more. It “said” something to me, some profound wisdom that my heart yearned to hear, some truth that brought me the kind of peace that transcends happiness or sadness or any other surface-level emotion. It brought me the kind of peace that can only come from God. But what was it? What, exactly, was this song — a song whose lyrics I couldn’t even understand — speaking to me that was so important and true?

As I have watched the mind-numbingly horrific news coming out of Connecticut, that song has come to mind once again. And I think I finally understand what feels so true about it.

The song was sung as part of an Advent Mass. It was December, a few weeks before Christmas. Outside the doors of the Basilica, it was the “Christmas season.” While the world was proclaiming only uplifting messages of gaiety and good cheer, the choir at this Mass proclaimed a tune that was deep and serious, maybe even a little mournful, and seemed to spring from some eternal source. On the broadcast, people had tears in their eyes when they received the Eucharist. I remember vividly the shot of a two women who seemed to be mother and daughter; one’s eyes were red and glassy, the other had buried her head in her hands as if in great mourning.

What I felt that day when I first heard that piece of music, that I feel once again as I recall it, is that this song proclaimed a truth about Christmas that is utterly lacking in our modern culture’s understanding of the holiday. Certainly secular culture sees Christmas and the season surrounding it as one of non-stop positivity, happiness, and fun. Even many parts of mainstream Christianity seem to see the weeks leading up to December 25th as a time almost exclusively for happy thoughts.

In this understanding of the season, it seems antithetical to the entire concept of Christmas to think about all the terrible suffering in this world. If you fall into this “Christmas Lite” understanding of the season, as I think I may have done lately, there’s a feeling that it is an insane juxtaposition to be praying for people impacted by atrocities while draping garland across the tree. There’s even a temptation to block it out, to put it aside, to close your heart to those impacted by evil, in the name of keeping the Christmas spirit — or, if you immerse yourself in prayer for those who suffer, to think of that as something separate from your normal activities of the season, like you’re hitting Pause on Christmas, and will resume immersing yourself in the season when you’re done thinking about tragedies.

But, as I have been reminded by the traditional prayers of Advent, and by my memories of that song, Christmas is the celebration of the baby who was born save humanity — but he saved it through his suffering and death. As always with Christianity, joy and suffering, happiness and pain, are always entwined. The true “Christmas spirit” is not rooted in appreciation of material goods and surface-level amusements. Even when we celebrate, our toasts and our feasting are founded on truths that transcend this world.

It feels like this has become a season of sorrow. In a way, it always was. The only joy this season ever contained was a joy rooted in eternity, in the knowledge that death has been overcome, and the hope that we will all meet again in a place where there is no suffering.


  1. bearing blog

    It wasn’t “Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child” was it? It is appropriate for the Feast of the Holy Innocents but sometimes gets played in Advent, notably for Our Lady of Guadalupe.

  2. Melody

    I don’t see a link or a reader, but the again I am on Safari…

  3. LPatter

    I studied at CUA and had a few friends who were hired to sing in the schola at the Shrine – I will send this link to them to see if they know – but bet someone out there beats me to it first!

    I agree – utterly haunting, beautiful and profound. So incredible that our souls can grasp certain truths only through song and art.

    Thank you for sharing!

  4. Christine the Soccer Mom

    Maybe there’s a way to ask the Basillica what the lineup was for any televised Masses during that Advent. I know that’s a long shot (and not likely to get an answer from the music director this time of year), but they might have something that tells them what they did year-to-year. Most music directors keep track so they vary what they do over a few years.

  5. Christine

    I can’t place the piece exactly, but I can place the era: that’s an English tudor-era anthem. Likely candidates for composer might be William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, Palestrina, Richard Farrant, Orlando Gibbons, or Thomas Weelkes — or their contemporaries!

    I’m sorry I couldn’t narrow it down further. It would help to have the words; I listened a few times but couldn’t make out much more than I’m pretty sure it’s in Latin. Same sort of feeling to it as something like this, though:

  6. Karyn

    I hope you find out; I’d love to know as well. I think I love Rorate Caeli Desuper for the same reasons. It’s haunting melody seems to me a cry of the heart that says, “Come Lord Jesus, come quickly”. I cry for Him return, but also for a deeper conversion in my heart of hearts.

  7. Cool Cats

    I couldn’t help but think of the Coventry Carol when I heard the news. Eerie.

  8. Calee

    This is lovely but I’m no help. Our youth chorus sang this today:
    as part of the Christmas pageant, which incidentally followed a memorial service for our founding priest and then a prayer for the rest of the souls of the victims. The haunting melody seemed incredibly appropriate.

  9. Kristin Q

    Hi, Jennifer — I live in the town next to Sandy Hook. My niece taught swimming to two of the little boys. Tears my heart out.

    I have been thinking of the Holy Innocents since first hearing about this senseless shooting. I find that story sensely overwhelming as well. I’ve never dwelt on it long enough to allow truths or peace or whatever to pierce through a deep layer of outrage I feel that ones so young and vulnerable are murdered in the name of ….

    Guess it’s time!

    I, too, have sent the msuic link to someone who knows these things!

  10. Heather

    This morning the priest spoke about the liturgical color pink, that it is a combination of purple, white and red. It is an appropriate color in that during advent we are waiting in anticipation (purple) then we celebrate Christmas (white) followed directly by the feast of St. Stephen (red) and shortly after the Feast of the Holy Innocents (also red). He reminded us that Christ was not born into a time of joy and peace, but of violence and hardship. He was the Light in the darkness. And as the other readings spoke of today it is his birth that brings us hope and joy in dark times. We can have peace and joy because our faith is in something greater than this world. What a great reminder during this time of waiting. And for that reason we can rejoice on this Gaudate (pink) Sunday. I pray God’s peace be with all of those impacted by the events this past week in CT.

    • AnneG

      It’s Rose, not pink:)

  11. Kelly

    Haha kind of like name that Latin tune. Sounds Palestrina-y to me. Sorry, I couldn’t name that tune in 12 notes, though.

    • richard

      I was thinking the same: it does kinda sound like Palestrina.

  12. Micaela

    “It feels like this has become a season of sorrow. In a way, it always was. The only joy this season ever contained was a joy rooted in eternity, in the knowledge that death has been overcome, and the hope that we will all meet again in a place where there is no suffering.”

    Oh, Jen. You just took my breath away with that quote. Thank you for writing this.

    • Mary Rue

      I too was moved by that quote. I’m a Southern Baptist but follow many Cahtolic bloggers. Jen speaks to my heart frequently. I lost my 30 year old son on November 1st and I KNOW that I will see him again, but I also know that this Christmas especially I will be acutely aware that “As always with Christianity, joy and suffering, happiness and pain, are always entwined.”

  13. monica

    Full disclosure: I am an Episcopalian, not a Roman Catholic, but I follow your blog occasionally. When I look at your post, I agree with you on one level–as Christians we recognize that our sorrow and joy are rooted in eternity. But on another level, I feel like this is a passive stance, an equivalent of saying, “there’s nothing we can do about suffering in this world.” On the subject of abortion, the Roman Catholic Church is adamant about political activism and advocacy. Why is there no similar outrage and action by the Roman Catholic Church about gun deaths in this country? Why is this not a “sanctity of life” issue? By supporting politicians who oppose abortion but who support deregulation of guns, I feel the Roman Catholic Church has blood on its hands for this tragedy in Newtown and the countless other shooting deaths that occur every day.

    • MelanieB

      Except the Catholic Church doesn’t support specific politicians. It lays out certain guidelines for voting, but doesn’t tell people to vote for one person or another. Individual Catholics may support individual politicians but the Church doesn’t.

    • Brian

      It’s very hard for faithful, thoughtful, Catholics and Christians to go into a voting booth. Catholics are not Republican or Democratic. I normally vote “Conservative” because of the abortion issue. Millions of innocent lives ended yearly in this country. Who do Episcopalian leaders endorse? RC leaders don’t endorse anyone. Which RC leaders say that these types of shootings aren’t sanctity of life issues?

      Honestly, I’m considering not voting at all. The only difference between parties seems to be the body count…, to an extent Monica, I agree with you. Maybe there is a kind of “unspoken” support of one party over another.

    • Christina

      There are some things that are intrinsically wrong and should NEVER be supported. Abortion and euthanasia are two such items, we should never accept the taking the human life with no other end than to stop that life from living. In both cases of abortion and euthanasia the end goal is the death of a human life.

      There are some things that could be wrong given circumstances. For example, there is such a thing as just war and right use of the death penalty. If these actions are used with the end goal of protecting human life then they not are considered evil. They become a “self-defense” for society as a whole. Have such actions been used in recent years in a just manner? Our church leaders have said no.

      Then there are things that are completely a matter of prudence. How to best care for the poor, what laws will best protect us, and how to educate our children are all matters of prudence. I know many people with conceal carry permits and I have considered getting one myself. As a single woman, knowing it can take up to a half an hour for cops to respond to a crime, it would make sense to be trained and have the means of protecting myself. However stats can be skewed in either direction, you can find anecdotal evidence to support either proposition. I can understand others disagreeing with me based on their own experiences or reasoning.

      So when I go to the voting booth I’m weighing the “always wrong” abortion party vs the “currently wrong” war party and accepting that every other issue is a matter of prudence. However, for me it’s even clearer. Any politician willing to kill the weakest humans is morally suspect. Why should I trust a politician with matters of prudence if he thinks he can define what is a human person?

      The problem in current elections is that EVERY politician is morally compromised on the basics of life. We are simply choosing a matter of degrees. Which is why I focus most of my attention on being a SAINT here and now and trying to help others become saints as well. That is truly the only thing that will save this country.

      • Paula


      • Adrian G

        Very well said! I think it’s also pschologically healthy (I find) to keep a firm priority on what our immediate duties are to those around us. No one else can be the perfect father/mother to our children right here and now.

    • Pilgrim

      There are a lot of causes for the tragedy in Conn. but I think it’s important to distinguish a few things. Abortion is always gravely immoral and evil. It’s not evil to own a gun.

    • Tiffani


      I love your comments, and I have been hearing them again and again in my head since I read them yesterday after reading through these comments. You speak truth. I hope someone listens.

      • monica

        Our rector has challenged us to take up the cause of gun control, as God’s work in the world. I would love to see more Christians and churches take up the cause. In this season of peace, needless violence has no place.

  14. Julie

    I’ve been intentionally avoiding the news of CT, out of a desire to stem my own anxiety, and to maintain composure in front of my very young children. But at mass this morning, I completely fell apart. This tragedy causes so many negative emotions – anger, sadness, desperation – and I faced Our Good God with the only prayer I could muster: “Help.” Because right now I don’t know what to do, or how to pray, or how to find him in this. I realized this morning that sometimes it is OK, even during the “Joyous” season, to face Him with uncertainty and grief. I know that those parents will be reunited with their beautiful babies some day, but until then, I guess there is not much more we can do than ask Him for help.

    • Paula

      Right! What a gorgeous piece of music!

  15. Blair

    Wow, I didn’t recognize the music but when I clicked to Charlotte’s Wikipedia link I recognized the beautiful prayer. It was one phrase that has forever stuck with me from the night prayers of the Nashville Dominican Sisters when I visited during college. In fact, I wrote up our own family prayers starting with “O Sacred Banquet…” Maybe I should get those prayers out and start praying them again!

  16. Bonnie

    In Advent we mark the long years of waiting, waiting for this promised Savior who rescues us from the evil and darkness that plagues mankind; from our own darkness that brings evil to those around us. Christmas is the celebration of the Incarnation, God made flesh, the Light come into the world of darkness. Hope, if we would only listen to Him. Hope, if we would only accept Him. Come Lord Jesus. Come.

  17. Monique in TX

    If you like Tallis’ O Sacrum Convivium, look for and listen to the setting of that prayer by Tomas Luis de Victoria. Amazing.

    • Paula

      I have sung Palestrina’s setting! It is indeed amazing!

  18. Margo

    I love that song. They sung it at Mass yesterday, if I’m not mistaken. The Mass was unusually subdued and the Advent wreath wasn’t lit, in memory of those whose lives were lost this past Friday.

  19. Connie Rossini

    This is wonderful insight, Jen. As another commenter said in different words, we are longing for the coming of the Messiah during Advent. As St. Paul put it, the creation (including man) is groaning in eager expectation of the consummation of our redemption. The birth of Christ is only one of the comings that we long for in Advent. Also, Christmas begins Christ’s journey to the Cross. We can think of Simeon saying to Mary on what we would think should be a day of perfect rejoicing–the Presentation in the Temple–“A sword shall pierce your heart.” Advent and Christmas should not just be light and fun. Joy acknowledges the sorrows have been or have yet to be overcome.
    Faith-based education, Carmelite spirituality

  20. Krista

    Jennifer, thank you. I love that I have a new Advent hymn that perfectly conveys the contradictory feelings swirling in me right now. May God bless us and may we all renew our faith as a result of this event.

  21. Adrian G

    I loved this post Jennifer, as I loved Minor Revisions. I should get a prize I think as I waited up ’til 1am in the UK only to find you seemed to be unable to speak for any more than 5 seconds without a dramatic pause in the stream. I hoped you were alright! I’ve seen it on YouTube since-thanks!
    I tried to teach the 6 year olds in my class about the purple cloth and candles I had on my altar and I found I almost had to give up. So immersed are we in celebrating it before we get there, they just don’t get it. Recent events are a salutary reminder to love them first and foremost.

    I remember attending Mass at the Jesuit church in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1996 when the priest shocked us all when he announced what he couldn’t believe had happened in Dunblane (Andy Murray as a child was in the school at the time). We had a gunning down of innocents but no one here has guns. Restrict gun use to make the means of doing it difficult, but if you stop there then the US can still have a Dunblane tragedy again. We thought it couldn’t happen- and it hasn’t happened since, thank God.
    But a life is a life is a life. I understand that 16% of the US population is missing through abortion. If that statistic can be overlooked in favour of tighter gun controls then…it’s the blind leading the blind.
    What are the Saviour of the World’s chances of being born if conceived today? Let’s pray for the Christ-child’s light to shine on all our countries!

  22. Tiffani

    I believe murder is murder, whether the life is living inside the womb or out of it. I do not believe that Our Lord looks at the death of innocents in terms of numbers since He creates each of us individually. Guns should never be defended. Jesus said that those who live by the sword will die by it. I am sure the point can refer to guns as well. We are a nation in love with violence. We need to lay down our swords, as well as our easy access to abortions.

    Let’s tell the truth once and for all: The murder of innocents by guns is as evil as the murder of an unborn child. We, as Americans, turn our eyes whenever the violence is not one that offends as much as another. I am sure, that Our Lord is broken by the murder of anyone and He is probably not the one speaking into our hearts with the notions, “Defend your gun rights! YOUR RIGHTS MATTER!” or “IT’S YOUR BODY! YOUR RIGHTS MATTER!”

    We are a ME FIRST people.

    • Christina

      This assumes that guns can only be used to murder others. Most of the people I know who own guns use them for either hunting or defense; neither of which are murder. And that there is the difference between abortion and gun ownership. An abortion is ALWAYS wrong, for it is the EVIL ACT of killing a innocent child. Whereas a gun can have good purposes, it is the NEUTRAL ACT of owning a tool. It is what the person chooses to do with the tool that matters. The two are not the same thing and shouldn’t be compared as you do.

      A man bent on murdering the innocent will do so even if he has no gun. Some of the worst mass-murders were done with explosives or fire. Should we say that people shouldn’t have access to gasoline and matches because some abuse them? Fertilizer?

      • Pilgrim

        Exactly, Christina!

        • Adrian G

          It just seems so very easy for this to have happened, though looking in from the outside the prevalence of guns seems very difficult to tackle. Surely a start must be made though. Americans seem so accepting of guns in their culture even, apparently, ones that seem beyond hunting or defence.

          • Pilgrim

            How is it that Americans in general seem accepting of guns “beyond hunting or defense?” I personally know many people who are gun owners, and all of them use them for those two reasons, and also for sport, i.e. trap and target shooting. Anyway, if you look at these mass murders, the problem goes way beyond the guns. We’re seeing young men, usually on strong medications, who are addicted to violent video games. Often, their home life is troubled. Yet we want to blame guns and lack of gun control. Gun control won’t take care of the problem, but it WILL make it impossible for law abiding citizens to defend themselves against these sort of people.

  23. Tiffani

    By the way, your post was beautiful, Jennifer. Thanking you for bringing beauty into this world today with your words. Keep writing. Write always.

    • Adrian G

      Immense. Thank you.

    • Bob

      Truly magnificent…heavenly really. Thanks for sharing!

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