The weirdest Christmas album I own is Sting’s If On a Winter’s Night—a collection of songs ranging from familiar carols (“Gabriel’s Message” and “Lo, A Rose E’er Blooming”) to more obscure, distinctly dark tunes. Among the latter are “Christmas at Sea,” in which a sailor braving a winter storm realizes that the ship is foundering just off shore from his hometown on Christmas Day, and the “Cherry Tree Carol,” in which a grumpy Joseph tells Mary that if she wants some cherries, her baby’s real father can step up and take care of her.
Reviews for If On a Winter’s Night were mixed; the spare instrumentals featuring medieval instruments were lovely, but in several songs Sting’s vocals were so oddly deep and drawn out that one wondered if a mischievous technician, attempting some sort of anti-Chipmunks statement about holiday music, fiddled with the recording speed. And let’s face it, tales of a sailor drowning in sight of his home don’t exactly scream, “Merry Christmas!”
Nevertheless, I’ve hung onto my copy of If On a Winter’s Night, and play it through at least once each year. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that a measure of melancholy is appropriate for the Christmas season. The light of Christmas is so hard-won, a mere flicker of trembling warmth against the solid black night. The brightly lighted trees beckoning cheer from windowpanes will end up naked and windblown on the curb. The baby curled up so warm and beloved on his straw bed will be misunderstood, derided, cast out, and murdered. The hymns declaring Jesus’s birth with merry abandon are fine, but it’s the minor-key songs that aren’t afraid of the dark that I love, because they tell the whole story.
Such melancholy tunes are harder to come by at Easter, when hymns tend toward triumphant trumpet blasts and boisterous alleluias. “Now the Green Blade Riseth,” sometimes referred to as “a carol for spring,” is an exception. This hymn’s spare tune and simple lyrics are so unusual amid the giddy release of spring that in preparing to write this piece, I did a Google search to see if Sting had recorded a version, because it seems a natural companion for his odd Christmas repertoire. (He has not.)
“Now the Green Blade Riseth” reminds us that light and joy only mean something in contrast with darkness and despair, that resurrection can’t come without death coming first. The hymn’s symbolism—new green shoots springing from the dry husks of buried seeds, our wintry hearts thawed by love—reminds us also that resurrection isn’t once and for all, but perennial, and that resurrection isn’t just about Jesus, but also about us.
The resurrection is why I’m a Christian, and I don’t mean that only in the Pauline sense that “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15: 14). That’s part of it: I follow Jesus not just because he was a decent fellow who spoke truth to power, but because of what God revealed through him about where true power lies. But I’m not a Christian only because I believe in the resurrection. I’m a Christian because I believe in resurrection, period. I don’t just believe the resurrection happened, I believe that resurrection happens. Christ’s resurrection wasn’t a one-time divine magic trick. Resurrection, rather, is a power abiding at the heart of the universe, and it happens not only in an empty tomb outside Jerusalem, but in our world and in our hearts, in ways we can see, feel, and touch, in ways we don’t need to prove with theological or historical argument. If we struggle to believe in the resurrection—a dead man come back alive, walking, talking, eating—perhaps we can start by claiming the resurrections we can know firsthand. “Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years,” Wendell Berry writes in his poem Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.
Resurrection is my Northern Lights azalea, a rattling skeleton of branches all winter, bursting to life with white and yellow blossoms that perfume the entire yard. Resurrection is my body—fragile, broken, and scarred by a genetic bone disorder, proving strong enough to nurture three children before and after birth. Resurrection is the house we bought 10 years ago, so neglected by the previous owner after his wife died at age 48 that it wasn’t fit for human habitation (though mice and chipmunks found it quite acceptable). Every coat of paint, newly dug garden bed, and renovated room has been an exercise in bringing a dead house back to life. Tomorrow, my 48th birthday, I will eat cake in our bright kitchen, with birthday candlelight reflected in the bay window overlooking our twilit back garden, and rejoice that this house, once so shrouded by grief and darkness, is now saturated with life and light.
Christ’s resurrection is both source and reflection of the truth—written into the very creation, written on our hearts— that nothing is irredeemable, that love always comes again.
The lyrics of “Now the Green Blade Riseth” are hopeful, but not all that cheerful. They tell the whole story of Easter, not just the happy bits. Bleak frozen ground and fresh green shoots; hearts frozen and laid bare and hearts called back to life; love murdered and love come again—these are all part of the story, and the endings only mean what we need them to mean when paired with the beginnings.
As Richard Rohr says, we must come to understand “that the pattern of death and resurrection is true for us too, that we must die in a foundational way or any talk of ‘rebirth’ makes no sense. I don’t know anything else that’s strong enough to force you and me to let go of our ego. Somehow our game has to fall apart.”
This is why I’m drawn to the songs that are plain, haunting, a bit bleak, even in our most celebratory seasons, because they tell the whole story. The dark and cold of Advent and Christmas lend themselves to melancholy minor-key tunes, but the verdant exuberance of springtime and Easter? Not so much. That’s why “Now the Green Blade Riseth” is so unusual and so necessary. It reminds us that we cannot know new life in Christ without knowing death first—and know it not secondhand, but intimately. We must feel the dank soil pressing against our bodies, the bitter wind scraping our hearts raw. Only then will the tender green blades, so tiny and fragile as they push improbably through the soil and into the sun, call us to transforming hope instead of absurd futility.
Ellen Painter Dollar writes about faith, family, disability, and ethics for the Patheos Progressive Christian Channel and numerous online and print publications. She is author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox 2012).