If I had to find one song that contains the meaning of Christmas for me, it would be this one. It is my favorite Christmas song. Each time I hear it, a rich blend of memories and important lessons come back to me, flowing with the beautiful notes of the introduction.
I can still feel the warmth of the chapel, still see the blue light on reflected from the deep snow outside. On a cold winter night, the chapel was cozy and safe. A safe shelter for a quirky, adolescent at the height of a raging ugly-duckling phase. An awkward adolescent who liked to sing instead of playing basketball (although he wasn't very good at either).
Ward choir may seem an unlikely refuge, but it was a sanctuary during junior high school, a place I spent happy hours. The mostly-elderly adults all thought it was wonderful that I came out, and they treated me so kindly. I was at ease with them and didn't feel like such an outlier.
I was just awakening to an awareness of what a flaky wreck I was. Disorganized, lazy in school, unfocused, I was feeling the lack of excellence or direction in my life. I knew I was a mess and I wanted to be better. The only problem was the distance between Point A and Point B seemed impossibly long.
And, of course, with the onset of adolescence, I was open to the increased complexities that come with growth and maturity. I wasn't’t doing anything terrible, but I certainly lived well below my privileges, and I truly I wanted to be better.
My seatmate was Vernon Peel, a saintly soul. He was probably the oldest member of our ward, and he and his wife, Hilda, were universally beloved. They radiated a goodness and purity and just seemed to glow.
Brother Peel was everything I was not. His life was together, both spiritually as well as in more mundane things. I was quite confident that Brother Peel had a direct line to God, and never committed the least little sin. I was also sure that Brother Peel cleaned his room. And the meticulous way he cared for his yard convinced me he would not procrastinate studying and miss major assignments.
In the arrangement we sang, the men soloed on, “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother.” On the night I remember, attendance was sparse, so Brother Peel and I formed the entirety of the tenor section. As we sang that line, I got chills. I felt something I knew was important, but didn't fully understand at the time. But the image of Brother Peel singing that line has stayed with me.
I think I understand now. Brother Peel had spent a lifetime serving the Master. He had spent a lifetime serving in priesthood callings. Now I understand that he had helped the Lord break those chains, and been a brother to some of those slaves. When he sang that line, he knew what he was singing about.
Since then, those lyrics have become sacred to me, as they are one of the most perfect expressions of the Messiah’s mission. They remind me of my aspirations as a disciple, and my responsibility to help break chains, and help free slaves.
I heard the song again a few years later at a Christmas party at our home. Things were much better. In high school now, the ugly duckling had started to become a swan. Sadly, new swans can be a bit full of themselves. My voice had matured and changed now, and I’d started taking lessons and performing in choirs. I had become, in my own mind at least, a pretty big deal.
Every December, my mom’s family gathered for a dinner and then a talent show. My grandmother always invited her neighbors, the Belnaps, to these events, I think because they didn't have extended family of their own.
That year, Mr. Belnap decided to participate in the talent show and he got up and started to sing, “O Holy Night.” Being a great vocal expert, I listened with generous forbearance as he sang. Not being a trained singer like me, his diction and intonation were a bit off. But I smiled in an encouraging way, impressed with my magnanimity and graciousness.
Part of the way through the first verse, Mr. Belnap got confused on the words, got lost and flustered and then just froze, shutting down in front of 30 or 40 people. He was obviously embarrassed, but even worse, he didn't’t know what to do. I descended from my Olympian heights to feel real, human sympathy for him.
But my dad did more than feel sorry. He jumped up, put his arm around Mr. Belnap, and began to sing: “Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices . . .” Mr. Belnap smiled and put his arm around my dad and they finished the song together.
My dad is not a trained singer. But that night, he was the voice of an angel as his song relieved distress and saved a man’s dignity.
My first semester at BYU was an exciting time for me. Serious study and practice yielded great progress, and I could feel the growing power in my voice. I remember singing this song over the break, and being thrilled that my voice could do it justice now.
A year later I had the chance. I was on my mission, serving in a small ward in Western Pennsylvania. I was asked to sing for the Christmas program—and of course, it was that song.
I had lots of time to practice. With no one to teach, my companion and I spent each day going to door-to-door in the town. Day after day, we walked the streets of the town, and I practiced my top notes over and over.
One day we knocked on the door of a large blue Victorian house on Newcastle Street. A strong impression assured me that this was the place, that we would find someone to teach in this home. But after several knocks, no one answered. So we went on. Clearly, I was wrong.
A few cold weeks later, we stopped at the end of the day at a local diner, hoping to warm up with a cup of hot chocolate. As we left, a couple stopped us. “Are you Mormon missionaries?”
Away at college, their daughter had just joined the Church. She was coming home for the break and wanted to attend services, but they hadn’t been able to find a local congregation. They asked us to drop by and gave us their address: Newcastle Street.
I barely contained the chills that were quickly trying to emerge as a loud whoop. When our conversation ended, my companion ran down Main Street and half way up Newcastle Street. It was the big, blue house.
The daughter came to church, bringing her whole family for the Christmas program. As I stood to sing, the song simply poured out. Rich and free, my voice soared up easily to the musical climax: “His pow’r and glory ever more proclaim!”
At that moment, my eye met the mother’s eye. I don’t know how they measure the wattage of spiritual energy, but this was a powerful jolt. She knew it was true, right then, just like that. She accepted the gospel. His power and glory had truly been proclaimed.
The last time I sang this song was about ten years ago. I was a father, husband, and an Elder’s Quorum president, trying to work on my doctorate and earn a living. I hadn't had time to practice for years and I wanted to get my voice back into shape—to hit those wonderful, soaring high notes again.
I had a presidency meeting at the church, so I arrived a few minutes early and began to play and sing this song. It was October, and I hoped to get my chops back in shape by December.
As I sang, my voice was tight and rusty, but I kept trying.
My counselor came, a professional musician. He gently suggested that this was probably not the song for me to sing. And I realized he was right.
I was out of practice because I was a husband and father. I worked full-time and taught night classes at a local college to supplement our income. I had been in school for years, trying to earn a degree that would allow me to take care of my family with one job. I was trying to fulfill a demanding calling. The Babe of Bethlehem eventually grew up, and so had I.
Those grown-up responsibilities meant I didn't have time to practice.
On one level, that was sad. But I realized that the things that prevented me from practicing were the sources of rich and abundant blessings in my life. And all of those things were more important, and ultimately more fulfilling, than even the most perfect performance.
I would love to sing again someday, but serious performance is unlikely. Life is still far too full of blessings to allow serious practice, and when I finally do have time, my voice will likely be past its prime.
But that is not the end of the story. Precisely because of that Holy Night, and another Holy Morning that came a few years later, I have forever to work on that voice. If not a hair of my head will be lost, surely my voice will be restored as well.
I rather suspect that the heavenly choirs are full of singers who are suddenly no longer past their prime, and some of the jubilation will surely be because they can sing again. My voice will come back, I don’t doubt that. I suppose the real question is whether that voice will belong to an angel. That's going to take some work. As I think about it, that's where I need the most practice right now.
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Braden Bell is a husband, father, teacher, and the author of The Road Show and the Middle School Magic series. His next book, Luminescence, will be released in March. He blogs about all of the above at bradenbell.com.