Subscribe for email updates on new releases and current projects:


* indicates required

Intuit Mailchimp

Friday, December 4, 2009


God caught me by surprise last night. We went to the Bethel University Christmas concert mostly because my daughter was playing in the Wind Symphony. But the experience totally caught me off guard and carried me to a place I did not expect. I have not thought much about Advent and Christmas yet this year; I tend to be ready to think about Christmas sometime around December 20th. But I wrote up some of the experience of last night's concert. If you're looking for an entrance into Advent, a way to begin anticipating the celebration of Christ's birth, here is one possibility:

Come with me. Wait, wait. Such a tangle in the parking lot. Is everyone here for the same thing? Wow. No room here. Follow the trail of red lights, watch the shrouded figure with the orange flashlight waving us on. Up the hill to the back lot. Is there room here? Yes -- yes, an open space. Finally!

Now, out of the car -- come on, we’ve got a ways to go yet -- and just follow the crowd. No, I don’t know the way, but I hope they do. Back down the hill for starters. See? Everyone is headed down that long walkway. It’s cold! Feels like snow by morning. The wind tears inside every seam on my clothes. Oh, good -- they’re headed in that doorway. Now the press is warmer, but crowded, too. Down the hallway, down the stairs, lower, lower. One last speedwalk across the mezzanine, past the ushers -- what? Oh, yes, I’m expected, I have a ticket here somewhere -- quick, find a seat, there, down toward the front, there’s one left. Excuse me, sorry, excuse me, oh -- sorry about your coat, ma’am -- sit down.

At that moment strains of song begin ... A lone voice at first, then two, others joining from the long procession of figures in dark robes, their faces lit by candles, line upon line carrying forward the ancient song.

I am caught up in the scene from Revelation, I realize, Revelation 4-5. We are gathered around the throne of God, faces lit with candles, lit with music, lit with joy; each player carefully placed, planted; every movement choreographed to the millimeter yet alive with the Spirit of the living God, flowing, calling forth music, voices -- thousands of voices, a multitude beyond number, my voice also cracks and wavers through tears, but the song is not marred by my emotion -- an ancient song of praise:

“Joyful all ye nations, rise;

Join the triumph of the skies.

With th’angelic host proclaim:

‘Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

The song continues, flowing from one into the next, a group here, a solo there. Now and then a voice rises to speak the words of the long-ago prophecies, declaring the promises and the works of our faithful God. All this pageantry, all this panoply of sound is for the One who sits on the throne, and we have joined together to lift him up, glorify, praise, adore.

A strange man steps to the fore. At first I am offended. What does such a man have to do with standing before this assembly? I see his scuffed shoes, the too-many creases in cheap pants, the hasty topcoat thrown over all. His untidy beard. I am put in mind of a children’s story, however, when he steps up. In the story each one who came into the circle, ragged and simple and humble, was revealed as a great lord or lady as they stepped into the ring. So here -- in his stoop, the movement of his arms and shoulders and fingers, the way he holds his head a little to one side (‘ware the pursed lips and his flashing eye!) even the clenching of his jaw -- every fiber of his being is given to this grand service. He is an artist, leading the artists, who lead the worship, bending every shred of his will to create an offering worthy of the King of kings!

The song goes on, rising and falling. Then, in the midst, a simple love song. Once written by a young woman for her lover, now the high voices carry this haunting tune to a new depth, a new love, a new Lover. But there is one -- among the perfect faces lit with joy, one cut by grief. Perhaps it is too near for her to sing of her true love. Her lip trembles and a wistful, even tearful expression escapes the rigid mask of propriety. Is there not love enough in this throneroom to heal her grief? Will she discover that this Lover is indeed sufficient for her every desire, her every need? The song goes on, and her face fades into the multitude.

The songs are familiar. Until now I had thought them baubles, cheap phrases used by advertisers to increase revenue in this silly season. The tattered remnants of commercials call to my mind shopping malls and interminable pop radio -- “All Christmas, All the Time!” These songs have been tawdry and thin at their best up till now. But here, they are revealed in their glory, as all things in that Presence are revealed in their glory, in the beauty of the first morning of unstained creation. Here there is no unreached potential, no sad failure to achieve; all is fullness, all is glory, for all is filled with the Spirit of God, even the songs. Especially the songs. These are fitting tribute and offering in the court of this King. There is no plate passed, no basket at the door, no appeal for support, for every heart here is laid on the altar; every life laid down for love’s sake; every shred of self will nailed to the cross.

What makes it so? In such a presence, how can one not worship? Each singer, each player, is caught up in that moment in full awareness that their craft (in German, kraft means strength) their art, is worship.

Then, when all was full and resounding like breakers in a February storm tearing at the rocks on the beach, like the fury of an early blizzard descending across the prairies without warning, like the stillness of the morning when frost rainbows ring from the trees in unbearable sunlight, then there came one like a Lamb, bearing the wounds that had once caused his death.

“Nail, spear, shall pierce him through

the cross be borne for me, for you

Hail, hail, the Word made flesh

the Babe, the Son of Mary.”

He came before the One seated on the Throne, and a voice declared, “You alone are worthy, for you were slain, and your blood purchased for God people of every tribe and tongue, every people and nation.”

We are caught at the unutterable edge of grief and joy, the undividable edge where need and fullness meet and become one. Here is the one who has opened the door, gathered the multitude, taken my brokenness onto him self so that I might be lost in wonder, love, and praise.

Then all goes silent. Out of the worshipping quiet comes a tone, a bell, a chorus of bells. Their eerie harmonies call from the altar that stands before the throne, saying that the vision cannot last -- not yet -- and time will come soon to turn back.

This multitude gathered around the throne is a band of messengers, come to tell you of a love beyond the reach of your heart that holds you, heals you, and waits for you. Know this: the time of your waiting, the time of your bondage, the time of your exile is short.

Meanwhile the song in heaven does not stop. It continues and praise swells through the ages ever greater, ever fuller around the throne:

Christ, to Thee with God the Father

And O Holy Ghost, to Thee

Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving

And unwearied praises be;

Honor, glory and dominion

And eternal victory

Evermore and evermore!

1 comment:

  1. Jeff,
    your thoughts on the Bethel Festival of Christmas concert are much appreciated. I am the spouse of the one of the directors. You cannot even imagine the prayer, angst, sleepless nights, and preparation, that goes into this wonderful Festival of Christma. The preparation usually begins more than a year in advance and reaches its planning apex sometime in early summer with rehearsals beginning in earnest during the early part of the fall term. All of this is bathed in prayer that our Christ will be honored, magnified, and lifted up as the one and only Messiah through whom we have salvation. Based on your observations, that desired result has been accomplished. I know the directors and all those involved in the execution of this festival greatly appreciate your very eloquent comments.


    Jonathan Parker