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Minister finds joy, wisdom in Christmas carols

Rev. James Howell's book singing

The Rev. James Howell ponders the words and special place of Christmas carols in a new book called "Why This Jubilee?"
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The Rev. James Howell ponders the words and special place of Christmas carols in a new book called "Why This Jubilee?"

With Thanksgiving in our rear-view mirror, we are now officially on the road to Christmas.

And for many, that means it’s time again to start singing – Christmas carols, that is.

Hearing and mouthing these holiday hits – “Silent Night,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “The Little Drummer Boy” and a score of others – are among my earliest and warmest memories.

But how many of us have actually pondered the words and the special place of these songs of the season?

The Rev. James Howell has, in a delightful and spiritually enriching new book called “Why This Jubilee?”

At 135 pages, this book by the piano-playing pastor at Charlotte’s Myers Park United Methodist Church is small enough to stuff in a stocking. But it’s filled with more theology, history and inspiration than many books three times its size.

The writing is graceful and learned: “Carols evoke a sense of home, warmth in the cold, light on even the longest of nights.”

Except for a few hymns that cry out for solos – “O Holy Night,” “Ave Maria” – these Christmas songs are meant to be sung together, with family, in church, on sidewalks.

That’s part of their enduring appeal, writes Howell in his 16th book. “Never is music more unifying, never do we feel so deeply than when we are part of something larger than ourselves.”

It also says something that we know these carols by heart.

By heart,” he writes. “We know the words without looking, and those words resonate in the parts of us that dream, love and yearn.”

And yet, Howell told me during an interview this week, we sometimes don’t appreciate or act on the profound lessons in these musical prayers.

“It’s amazing how many of these carols are about peace and stillness and quiet. Silent Night. In ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem,” how still we see thee lie,” Howell said. “We sing all this and then we’re not actually silent. We’re not able to be still, to be focused.”

Instead, many of us fill the weeks leading up to Christmas – Christians call it Advent – with shopping sprees, countless holiday parties and overall busy-ness.

“If you care about Advent, you might not have as big a swirl of parties and shopping. You might be quiet,” Howell said. “All the shopping and consuming would be kind of a shock to Jesus. We’re saying, ‘You were born, so we’re going to have a shopping holiday.’ He’s not asking for a party. He’s asking us to live prayerful, thoughtful and attentive lives.”

Way cool duet

But Howell is no Scrooge: His book includes meditations on phrases from such secular carols as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Christmas Song,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

And during a recent book signing at his church, Howell invited an 8-year-old girl who’s taking piano lessons to join him in tickling the ivory in Francis Chapel for a sing- and play-along of her favorite carol – “Jingle Bells.”

“That was way cool,” Howell said.

The pastor-author will do another of these “book-singings” at 11 a.m. Thursday (Dec. 3) at Myers Park United Methodist, 1501 Queens Road. The public is invited and Howell pledges to be at the piano again, playing the favorite carols of anybody who shows up.

“I play by ear and I haven’t been stumped yet,” said Howell.

He’ll also do a more traditional book-signing, at 7 p.m. Dec. 9 at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road.

Howell said asking him to choose his favorite carol would be like asking him to pick his favorite child.

But he does mine the riches in many carols in his 24 chapters, divided into sections on songs about The Place (Bethlehem), The Men (including the shepherds and visiting kings), The Mother (Mary) and The Child (Jesus).

In “Away in a Manger,” Howell finds the best possible prayer in the third stanza: “Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay close by me forever, and love me, I pray.”

The book’s title comes from “Shepherds, why this jubilee?” – a line in “Angels We Have Heard on High” that reminds us that it was lowly shepherds, not the high and mighty, who first heard the good news about that first Christmas from God’s messengers.

“What do those poor nobodies who never mattered, except to a handful of bleating sheep, have to sing about?” Howell writes of the shepherds. “To those impoverished men whose homes were rocky, grassy fields out in the cold, who were exposed to the elements, Christ came before he came to anybody else.”

So sing your heart out – with others – this Christmas. Writes Howell: “God is pleased when we lift our voices in song. Some healing happens in the soul.”

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