Carols by Candle Light at the Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne is an annual pilgrimage for thousands of Melbournians. For many more, the 3-hour Christmas extravaganza provides background Christmas mood music on tv and radio for families madly wrapping Christmas and preparing food for the big day.
Perhaps it’s my grinch-like tendencies, but my enthusiasm for watching what is essentially a pentecostal styled pop concert (or Wiggles for grown-ups!) doesn’t appeal to my musical sensibilities. It’s hard not to notice the jarring vibrato of Australian artists singing the most sublime truths known to the world while disbelieving them in their hearts and lives.
Half of my readers are probably letting out a quiet nod of agreement (and the other half now have confirmation that Murray is the grinch). With that confession (or rather a criticism) out of the way, I want to share something that did strike me even as the show played on in the background of my home.
One of our nephews was performing and so we had instructions from the family to keep an eye (and ear) open for him. The band played on through our television when two quite wonderful performances came on stage, one after the other, both causing me to pause eating Christmas lunch ahead of schedule.
Silvie Paladino sang the not so Christmas carol, ‘How great thou art’, and then the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir sang an old German carol in their own native tongue, Western Arrernte and Pitjantjatjara language. This 19th century carol arrived in central Australia when Lutheran missionaries came to share the good news of Jesus. Generations later, these songs about Jesus have formed part of the local culture and are now been sung beautifully in aboriginal languages. The choral performance was indeed a special moment.
Anyone who watches Candles by Candlelight will know that the music is mishmash of secular and sacred songs. Rudolph with his red nose and Santa Claus coming are intermingled with ‘The First Noel’, and without any sense of distinguishing between fiction and fact. The entire evening is a jumble of feel good old time tradition.
Silvie Paladino’s song choice, at least for me, interrupted the show in the same way a lit candle intrudes on a darkened room.
“And when I think that God, His Son not sparing
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in
That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing
He bled and died to take away my sin
Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee
How great Thou art, how great Thou art”.
These words reflect the heart of the Christian message. Christmas is about preparing for and pointing to that cross.
I don’t know about you, but when I heard those words, something good stirred inside. We’ve done a fine job sanitising the birth of Jesus, washing over many of the particulars that make the incarnation so extraordinary and thwart with danger and awe. However, it’s not so easy to give a PG rating to that bloodstained cross. 2,000 years on and that cross remains the most ignominious moment in history. We like the Christmas part of the story, but the death part? No one has lived as pure and innocent a life as Jesus, and yet he willingly walked the road to crucifixion and experienced the worst of evil. The cross is both the world’s greatest horror and the world’s greatest hope. The cross stupefies human power trips and intellectual exercises. The cross exposes human hubris, the reality of evil, the holiness of God, and the nature of true Divine love.
It’s hard enough convincing Aussies today of the reality of Jesus’ birth, let alone the death absorbing and life giving hope through Jesus’ death and resurrection. And yet, as Silvie Paladino sang, ‘That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died to take away my sin’.
As I read my Bible, I read something about the death of Jesus every week. Each Sunday as I have the privilege and responsibility to preach at church, I have the opportunity to explain this ancient story that continues and will forever define every generation and part of the world. At Christmas, I want to hear about the cross. The Bible tells us, that Jesus’ birth is designed to prepare for that cross and to miss it is to keep wonders from peoples’ minds and hearts.
Stan Grant wrote a moving piece on ABC about the Nick Cave concert he recently attended.
“But I sensed a space between the religion that Nick Cave speaks of and the desire of many in the audience for some connection.
They wanted the personal touch of Nick Cave the rock star. But did they want the touch of God?
Some, perhaps many, just like me, no doubt would have. But I could not help but think that many – if not most – in the audience would have been more comfortable with a spiritual experience.
This was a secular audience. How many of those with their hands outreaching would likely be found in the pews of church?”
Stan Grant points out, as does Nick Cave, the expressive individualism that dominates our current cultural sensibilities isn’t producing the freedom and life that we are looking for. Rather, it agitates and further debilitates the human longing. Stan Grant reflects on his indigenous heritage and points us to the same saviour whom the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir sang about and whom Silvie Paladino sought to highlight on Christmas Eve
“In times of grief, catastrophe or tragedy, do the secular shibboleths of reason or science or law or rights fill the God-shaped hole?
Cave says the modern faiths of politics or identity don’t answer those questions for him.
Religion matters, church matters to Nick Cave. It is where he draws closer to the crucified Christ.”
If this is the real thing, then the hymn writer is right to exclaim,
“Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee
How great Thou art, how great Thou art”
How much better is the story that God is there and he is greater and better than we ever imagined. It is more satisfying and exciting to consider this Jesus story than to carry around the baggage of self-hope and self fulfilment and self defining reality.
The Apostle Paul explains it this way,
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)
Here’s my final word for 2022, don’t dismiss the songs we sang on Christmas day. Don’t disregard the message we heard as we visited Church over Christmas. Instead, consider, that maybe, just perhaps we ought to take another look at this message of the Christ.