As a little kid, I remember being bundled up with the rest of my six siblings and piling into our van and driving through the cold, slushy Ohio weather to attend a Christmas show called "The Living Christmas Tree." Part pageant, part musical extravaganza, thousands would crowd into Grace Brethren Church to celebrate Christmas together. Another year, a similar scene was reenacted as we saw CCM all-stars perform Handel’s Young Messiah. It certainly wasn’t the music, it wasn’t the performance; rather there was something about celebrating Christmas in musical community that was simply right.
December brings a lot of things that people don’t enjoy and love to rail against: commercialism, “Happy Holidays!” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and Kenny G releasing yet another holiday album. But there is also the Christmas spirit, when “Faithful friends who are dear to us, gather near to us once more.” Even if you are sick of Christmas carols by the time Dec. 25 arrives, these songs continue to be played because they touch on eternal truths buried in the commonplace.
There’s a reason that Christmas peels back the layers of life and shows community in a unique way. We celebrate Christmas in honor of Jesus Christ being born a baby in a manger, of God being made flesh. One of the many beautifully painful things the incarnated Christ did was to knit together a patchwork of people from very different cultures into His church. Just look at the motley crew of apostles—a tax collector, a couple hardheaded brothers, fishermen, a former Pharisee. Even within the “homogeneous” land of Israel, this ragtag group became the builders of the early Church.
This community was built through the life death, and resurrection of the child born in Bethlehem, the God-man Jesus. There is a reason friends gather to sing Christmas carols. We don’t gather to sing Thanksgiving songs or even Easter songs, but we do for Christmas. Perhaps it is because the birth of Jesus was celebrated in community and with song. When the birth was announced to the shepherds, pastor Russ Ramsey says, “It was as if there were millions of angels hiding just behind some celestial corner, and once they heard, ‘Unto you is born this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!’ they were unable to contain their joy any longer and all rushed in, praising God, singing, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased.’” And then the shepherds, en masse, went to celebrate with Mary and Joseph. I don’t know if shepherds can carry a tune, but I am sure if they could, they probably tried to imitate those angels.
Christmas is meant to be celebrated in musical community and there are artists out there who are doing just that. This year, among others, there is the fantastic Salvation is Created compilation by Bifrost Arts [see our review]. And Andrew Peterson, of the Square Peg Alliance, released a 10th anniversary re-mastered version of his Christmas masterpiece Behold the Lamb Of God. In the yearly tour, he recreates what was so beautiful about my childhood Christmas concerts; not only has it told the tale of Christ with artists like Derek Webb, Alison Krauss, Pierce Pettis, Randall Goodgame, Bebo Norman, Buddy Miller, Mindy Smith and two-thirds of Nickel Creek, but it is done in a way that connects the audience to the story. Perhaps that is why it is so fitting that the concerts end with the audience singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” and the band dimming the lights and walking off the stage while the singing is still going on. They become part of the community that is not there to worship them, but to worship the One who inspires the songs.
Peterson says that in the five years of shaping what became Behold, he “began to discover the blessing of artistic community. You see, by then I no longer felt ownership of the project. I was compelled to tell Jesus’ story with the gifts He gave me–the biggest of those not being my songwriting at all but the community of the Kingdom itself. And telling that story hundreds of times has changed me. I love the Gospel more for it.” Perhaps that is part of the reason Christmas is so special. We cannot take ownership of Christ’s birth; we can’t point to what we did to help it come about or the program we planned to release it to the masses. All we can do is celebrate God’s plan in action.