Drive down the road on December 26 and beyond, and you’ll see a bunch of denuded Christmas trees kicked to the curb because their owners think Christmas is now over. They may have sung Christmas songs at their house, but they haven’t listened to the final verse.
And that final verse is vital. Take, for instance, one of my favorite Christmas songs: “Would I Were Nigh”:*
This is my favorite kind of Christmas carol: gentle, tender, and spare, with enough details to make the scene human, but also eliciting a sense of wonder.
You can see on the sheet music that the choir director wanted the singers to perform the first verse, to skip verses 3-5 for brevity, and to end with the final verse. And that final verse is there for a reason.
The first five verses express a subjunctive longing to have been present at the actual birth of Our Lord – to see “the oxen lie beside Him” – to watch Joseph keep “a watchful eye for danger” while the baby sleeps — to see the shepherds “lend ragged coats to hide Him.”
But the final verse is even more reflective: “Would I were there . . .” he says, “Yet everywhere, I too can beg His blessing; Then go my way, by night or day, safe through a world distressing.” And that one thought deftly rescues the entire song from any hint of fantasy or sentimentalism: we don’t have to daydream or wish, because no matter who, where, or when we are, the scene is real. The Incarnation of our Lord is present to us. The luminous child lights the way through every era.
I haven’t thrown out our Christmas tree. Our decorations are still up, and we’re still lighting our Advent wreath throughout the Octave of Christmas, singing Christmas songs instead of Advent ones. We’re still feasting, still pressing ourselves to treat each other with extra care and tenderness, because Christmas isn’t over. And yet I woke up in the middle of the night in distress, feeling like I missed the mark this year. Our Christmas was too busy, too secular, too focused on externals and not enough on the Christ Child. Somehow, I hadn’t seen Christmas through to its end.
Well, of course I hadn’t.
Just as with the folks who toss out their trees on December 26th, I make a mistake if I pin all my hopes for peace and joy and love on Christmas day, or really on any single day. If I do make this mistake, it’s because I haven’t listened to the song all the way through. I’m leaving off the final verse, and that one is vital.
The final verse, not only in the song but in anything that God is trying to tell us, says: “This story, your story, doesn’t end with death.” If we’re not getting everything we need in this world, if we don’t feel satisfied, if we feel adrift and alone and incomplete, if we feel that we’re always missing the mark, that’s because we haven’t gotten to the end of the song yet. We haven’t yet gotten to the final verse, which rescues all the others from fantasy.
The most accurate “final verse” we can sing is the one the Church teaches us: We wait in joyful hope, and that includes joyful hope for our own salvation through Christ’s efforts, not through our own. Don’t skip that verse.
The light of the Christ child is not meant be contained in a single day. It stretches from that night in Bethlehem to our present day, and it also stretches out ahead of us, into the future, as we wait for Him to come again and set all things right, in our own lives and in the “world distressing.”
So if this season feels all too distressing to you – if you are alone, or if you are suffering, or if bad memories seep through and make this time of year awful, or even if we ourselves are the cause of that distress — remember that we’re all still in that subjunctive phase.
There’s nothing wrong with us if we feel incomplete. We are incomplete. The final verse is yet to come. Oh, that final verse! It’s worth waiting for.
*from An Irish Carol Book (McLaughlin and Reilly) compiled by Fr. John Fennelly, arranged by Fr. Fennelley and J. Gerald Phillips, my sister’s choir director in college. I can’t find a recording anywhere, so here is the music (thanks to Sam Schmitt for hunting down and sharing the sheet music!)
A version of this essay first appeared in the National Catholic Register in 2015.