The news was bleak. Despite decades of hit songs like “Blue Skies” and “Always” and enviable celebrity status under the pen name Irving Berlin (originally named Israel), by the turn of the 1930s America’s songwriter had peaked and was sliding with the stock market into oblivion. Not only was the country entering the Depression, but, more personal to Berlin, his only infant son had died on Christmas day in 1928, the new medium of the radio was killing his beloved music industry with free music, and he couldn’t seem to muster up any songs capable of fighting back the closing darkness. Though he plodded on with the habit of writing in the early 1930s, nothing he could pen would measure up in his eyes. As far as he could see his most joyous era was coming to an end, the country was collapsing, and the cliché phrases he daily penned were painful reminders of his draining well.
We can see now what he couldn’t. At least one of the pathetic attempts at a song he discarded, “How Deep is the Ocean,” would eventually make its way to radio, the medium he so feared, and rack up all kinds of royalties, re-recordings, and celebrity performances. Less measurable is what that song would come to mean in the private lives of individuals. My wife, Lyndsay, has her own story with it. Her father, who outwardly often had a brusque, sarcastic exterior, was never more tender than when he would sing his favorite old standards with his daughters. Even after the most icy conversation, he could warm the chilled air by placing his hands on Lyndsay’s face and launching into a few lines from musicals like Annie, Ain’t Misbehavin’, or Fiddler on the Roof. “How Deep is the Ocean” was one of the most repeated though. They didn’t even sing it. They would recite it to each other fondly whenever she was old enough to part ways after a visit. Later when he gave her away to me at our wedding, he whispered it into her ear. On his deathbed over a decade later, she whispered it into his.
How much do I love you?—”How Deep is the Ocean”
I’ll tell you no lie.
How deep is the ocean?
How high is the sky?
Those lines were a gift, a parting benediction that repeatedly made even more tangible their deepest bond.
Back when Berlin was writing one painfully dull phrase after another, he could see neither the public glory to come nor the private significance of the song amongst strangers. When we look back at the story of Israel at the birth of Christ from the vantage point of our 21st century explosions of holiday merriment, it is good to remember what Israel could and couldn’t see.
The story of Advent invites us to persist in faith, to keep writing, to keep welcoming, to keep trusting not only the unseen heavens but God’s continuous covert work in the least newsworthy happenings on earth.Chris Slaten
They could see the oppressive weight of Roman power. Empire after empire had captured, subdued, assimilated, and exterminated all but a remnant of the promised nation of God, and the Roman empire was just another conquest in this bleak chain. While there is some dispute about the purpose for the census at the time of Joseph and Mary’s journey, at the very least lives had to be uprooted and put on hold in order to travel to accommodate the mandate. One possibility is that it was initiated to account for taxation. If that is the case the census was another physical reminder that their hard earned shekels fed the relentless hand of Rome, the roads, the military, and the ubiquitous, egocentric artwork of their oppressors. Even their holiest standing temple was a government funded building project intended to remind them of Herod’s kindness, despite his habit of killing them. Today, the awkward Christmas dinner where the grandfather starts ranting about the IRS and government overreach might actually be an accurate recreation of the kinds of conversations being had in the rooms that were too crowded for Joseph and Mary.
Anyone who looked instead to the hope that could come from within Israel faced a people crumbling from their divisions. Irreconcilable arguments between the conservative Pharisees, the liberal Sadducees, and the isolationist Essenes. Traitorous Jewish tax collectors pillaging their neighbors. A centuries-old bitter rivalry with the Samaritan Jews of the northern kingdom. Fiery debates between loyalists to Herod and those who longed for a descendent of David on the throne. Zealots stockpiling militia gear.
All of this news mattered. The young couple looking for a place to stay did not, even though they carried the king who would serve a new, everlasting empire made up of enemies from every contentious faction, even Roman oppressors.
Like Israel, like Berlin we can only see so far. But there is a gift that comes with recognizing our inability to see when we’ve penned words that will mean the world to someone else or brushed up against the Messiah. When we assume our blindness to the significance of the most ordinary moments, it makes way for mystery. It relieves the pressing weight of mass media events by allowing room for faith, an assurance of solid realities beyond the limits of our perception, “the conviction of things not seen.” The story of Advent invites us to persist in faith, to keep writing, to keep welcoming, to keep trusting not only the unseen heavens but God’s continuous covert work in the least newsworthy happenings on earth.
Mary did know this. She had been given a privileged glimpse of Yahweh’s hidden, steadfast hand, and we can hear it in the words she chose as she privately rejoiced with her relative Elizabeth. Now we can rejoice with her:
My soul magnifies the Lord,—Luke 1:46-56 (ESV)
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.
[Author’s Note: The dynamic explored here of God’s hidden work during catastrophic events was inspired by the song “Apocalypse” by the New Empires, which sings on a literal level about devastation during the Middle Ages and John Wycliffe, whom some call the “Morning Star” of the Reformation. On a figurative level those images can be taken much more broadly, particularly in 2020.]
Singer-songwriter Chris Slaten releases music under the name Son of Laughter. His most recent recording, No Story Is Over, was made possible by the generosity of listeners who hosted and attended his house and church shows across the country. He’s currently working on a musical about the life of Jacob, though he spends most of his time teaching high school literature in Chattanooga, TN, where he lives with his wife, Lyndsay, and their two delightful children.