It is with pleasure that I offer this guest blog post by Rev. Dr. Scott Paeth to PrayTell readers. This was Christmas Day’s morning message at Edgebrook Community Church (UCC) in Chicago, where I serve as director of music. Alan Hommerding
“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’ Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices; together they shout for joy.
When the Lord returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes. Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.”
Isaiah 52:7-10 (NIV)
I have a … conflicted relationship with Christmas music. When the department stores start playing it the day after Halloween, I find myself getting tired of it pretty quickly. When I was growing up, we spent a lot of time around the Christmases at my aunt and uncle’s place in Boston, where my uncle had the radio tuned to the Christmas station all day—every day—from the week before Christmas until New Year’s Eve. In itself, this was fine, until it became apparent after the first afternoon or so that the station played the same couple of dozen songs in an unending loop every few of hours. Meaning that by the forty-fifth repetition of José Feliciano’s rendition of “Feliz Navidad” I was ready never to hear another note of Christmas music as long as I lived. I am also a regular participant in the annual Whammageddon competition, which you win by never hearing Wham’s “Last Christmas” between Thanksgiving and New Year, and which you lose by going to the store to buy a gallon of milk.
On the other hand, I have a great love for traditional Christmas carols and hymns. In High School, my choir performed “Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming” and it instantly became my single favorite Christmas song. So, the right song, at the right time, transports me directly into the Christmas frame of mind, and I do love the hymns and carols that I sing with my church during the Christmas season, the ones that we sang together last night. It doesn’t just have to be traditional music though. The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping” will work too.
For the most part of course, this is just nostalgia, in either a positive or negative sense. Music has that capacity to mentally transport us in a way few other sensations can. It’s a bit like how Proust’s In Search of Lost Time describes the way that the sensation of smelling a cookie draws his protagonist back to childhood memories. But what Isaiah reminds us in today’s reading is that music is almost always a corporate and collective response, rather than purely subjective.
Isaiah offers us a setting in which the people come together to lift their voices together to sing in joy. A messenger arrives announcing good news and salvation; a messenger who assures the people that they are not subject to human political powers, but are rather subjects of God’s kingdom which liberates us from oppressive structures and systems. And so, when the people receive this good news, Isaiah tells us they “sing for joy.” The very ruins of Jerusalem break into singing in response to the good news that God’s messenger brings to the people.
As Christians of course, we understand the good news that Isaiah refers to as the “Good News” of the Gospel, the good news of the Incarnation, and the good news of God’s salvation, not only of Israel, but of all creation. When we come together on Christmas day to break forth together in song, our praise starts with Isaiah’s words, but extends beyond them, beyond the salvation of Jerusalem or the restoration of Israel to the land that he promises, and embraces the restoration of the whole cosmos.
The messenger who announces this good news to us this morning is Jesus Christ, and so as we gather together to celebrate his coming, we too lift up our voices song. We too sing for joy in the hope of God’s coming Kingdom. We too look forward to God’s presence, and so we too break forth into singing together on this morning.
This is a season for singing, and one of the blessings that we share with one another is the music that this season brings. What Isaiah proclaimed to Israel we claim as our own—and the songs of salvation that we raise up this morning testify to the joy that we have in Jesus Christ.
So the music that we share together is not simply nostalgia, not simply looking backward and remembering some past joy, but in a way its opposite, nostalgia backwards, what my theology professor Gabe Fackre used to call aiglatson—a longing for the presence of the future which has not yet appeared. It is this aiglatson which we sense when we join together as a community in singing these songs, in praying these prayers, and in remembering once more that Jesus Christ came to us on this day to bring light to a world of shadows. And we only really feel this sensation in its most profound form when we gather together in community, for we know that where two or three are gathered, there is Christ among them. As we break forth in singing together, we do so in faith that Christ is here with us, singing together with us, and drawing us further toward God’s future.
When I am reminded of this, my sense of conflict over Christmas music melts away, and I see once again that any voice raised up in praise and worship of God, any song that reminds us of the truth of God incarnate here with us, is a testimony to the Grace that has come to us in Jesus Christ, and thus should be enjoyed and celebrated.
So even if I’m a bit of a Scrooge when I hear the first strains of “Jingle Bell Rock” over some public sound system on November first, when I later pause and reflect, I remember that even that song in that place at that time serves as a reminder of how God is with us in all places and at all times, and how we are promised a future where God’s presence is tangibly known to all of creation.
Every voice—from the smallest creature to the greatest of galaxies, will be lifted up in praise of the God of Jesus Christ.
Scott Paeth is Senior Pastor at Edgebrook Community Church in Chicago, IL. He is also a professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University and Senior Fellow at the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Chicago.