I absolutely love Christmas music. As early as possible each year, I begin listening to it. In fact, I’ve decided that if merchants can begin airing holiday commercials on TV right after Halloween, I can start listening to Christmas carols, too.
Have you ever pondered why God chose the medium of music to proclaim the birth of Jesus? Why is music so central to our faith — not only at Christmastime, but all year long? Let me suggest a few reasons.
1. Music remembers. I’m amazed at music’s power to evoke memories. In my mind, I can peg certain Christmas songs to specific places, people and events. The carol “Mary’s Little Boy Child” takes me back to our farm home, when I was about 13, listening to it on an old LP vinyl recording. The song “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” reminds me of a pastor’s wife we knew who would sing that beautiful meditation every Advent. And on and on.
2. Music engages. Have you ever entered a church service, vowing not to sing? Perhaps you are very depressed or unhappy about something. But gradually, without realizing it, you are drawn into the music and carried on the praises of the church. You are singing despite yourself! Anne Lamott has written, “Music is about as physical as it gets: your essential rhythm is your heartbeat; your essential sound, the breath. We’re walking temples of noise….” Music is a very physical, muscular, multi-sensory experience.
3. Music expresses. To say it simply, when we sing, we express what we believe most deeply. In Luke 2, the evangelist seems to be reaching for words to describe Christ’s birth. He twice uses the word “glory” (vv. 9, 14). The Greek word is doxa, from which we get our word “doxology.” It means a radiating, brilliant splendor. It is this radiating, brilliant splendor which music attempts to communicate.
Ponder the words of Carolyn Winfrey Gillette: “Singing is a language that God has given us to express our deepest longings, greatest joys, and most profound trust in the One who created us and loves us unconditionally.” Music is powerful. It taps our emotions, especially when we want to express the inexpressible.
4. Music comforts. What is there about a song that can touch us so deeply when we are in pain? God’s Spirit can use music when no words work. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from his German prison cell about the disgusting conditions there. He eloquently recounted in a letter to his friend that the darkness of night often overwhelmed him, until he repeated “innumerable hymns” and thus fought off the night terrors.
5. Music teaches and reaches. Like many preachers, I’d like to think that the spoken word is the key to reaching people. But alas, I don’t think anyone was ever argued into the kingdom. On the other hand, I do believe that through song, many souls have been wooed into a love relationship with God. Writer Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “Let this be my epitaph: ‘The Only Proof He Needed For The Existence of God Was Music.’”
There is a subtle movement in Luke 2:9-13. At first, a single angel makes the birth announcement (vv. 9-12). Then that angel is joined by an army of heavenly messengers, a choir of mammoth proportions (v. 13), as they sing, chant and shout the news: the Savior is born! Perhaps that “groundswell movement” effect (going from one voice to innumerable ones) is a model for our evangelism. We sing the Good News of Jesus so well that the rest of the world begins to sing along.
As I write this, I am joyfully anticipating the arrival of a new grandson, possibly during Christmas week. (Notice how subtly I worked that into this column?) It is common in our culture to announce the birth of a child or grandchild through postal mail, Facebook or other social media.
With whom do we usually share our best news? We share glad tidings of great joy with people we care about, with people who are important to us. So God’s birth announcement, God’s music, comes to us. Just think — God shares the world’s best music and best news with us! I don’t know about you, but I am honored to be included on Jesus Christ’s birth announcement list.
Doyle Sager (email@example.com) is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Mo. His column appears in every other issue of Word & Way.