Most people that I know have a checklist when it comes to Christmas. Some of them are actually physical lists while many of them are just mental lists, but they’re all lists nonetheless. These lists are basically the things that these people see as necessary in order for them to feel that the Christmas holidays are complete……at least in their minds.
Some friends absolutely need to watch a movie. It might be “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “Christmas Vacation” or even “A Christmas Story.” Whichever movie it might be, they’ve got their routine and they do their best not to miss it. Personally, “A Muppet Christmas Carol” is on my list. There’s just something about the songs, Michael Caine playing Scrooge, and Miss Piggy’s obnoxious demeanor that draws me in every single time.
For others, it’s the tree. Once they go and pick a tree, cut it down, and set it up in their house, they feel complete. They have their routine to ensure that they find the perfect tree. They know just how to get the tree, where they’ll find it, how big it needs to be, and all of the details that will make THIS tree the perfect one to initiate the Christmas season.
Still others have routines that kick off the season for them. It might be making cookies or Christmas caroling to a nursing home or even beginning the Advent devotional that they have with their children at the dinner table. Chances are, if you celebrate Christmas, there’s some kind of routine that you follow, intentionally or unintentionally, that helps you enter into the season.
Years ago, a friend introduced me to an album by a musician who, like me, is the son of a pastor. I’ve found that those of us who are in that category generally go one of two ways: all in or all out. In other words, we either continue on in the steps of our parents, embracing the faith that has been passed on, and making it our own, or we completely go the other way, even claiming that we don’t believe in God at all. This musician took the first path, also like me.
He’s written some great music which just doesn’t get a lot or radio play. In my opinion, that’s probably a good thing, the radio rarely dictates what’s on my playlist. One album that he wrote is a song cycle, a series of songs that are all interconnected by one common theme. The album is called “Behold the Lamb of God: The True Tall Tale of the Coming of Christ.” It has quickly become a favorite for me. The musician’s name is Andrew Peterson.
When he wrote the album, he wanted to have a Christmas party where Santa, “wasn’t invited,” in his own words. It wasn’t that he was anti-Santa, he just wanted to create some sacred space where the real reason for celebrating Christmas was honored without all of the distractions that easily sidetrack us all. So, he set out to do it, and the result, in my humble opinion, is among the best writing that I have seen. The connectivity of the theme and music is incredible, it’s funny, and it’s creative. From the opening notes of “Gather ‘Round, Ye Children, Come” through the haunting minor chords of “So Long, Moses” to the funny and tongue-twisting verses of “Matthew’s Begats,” Peterson spins the yarn of Christ’s first advent, his coming to earth in the form of a baby.
When I first heard the album, it wasn’t an easy sell. I listen to too much music to be won over so quickly. But there was something about the music and lyrics that drew me in and wouldn’t let me go. It’s the only album where I truly feel compelled to sit down and listen to it from beginning to end without taking a break or mixing up the order. It’s an experience, one that I don’t take lightly, and one that I probably can’t have too many times in the course of the Christmas season.
After discovering the album, I also discovered that Peterson took the album on the road in December every year, performing it in its entirety with a cast of friends and musicians from beginning to end. Shortly after my parents moved to Williamsburg, Peterson brought his cast of characters to Richmond, so we seized the opportunity to go and experience “Behold the Lamb of God” for the first time, up close and personal.
Last night, we experienced it for the third time. It never gets old for me and it’s one of those albums that, when it comes to the end, I say to myself, “Well, that didn’t seem very long” even though it clocks in at around 42 minutes or so. At the end, I’m left wanting more, not because the music wasn’t fulfilling, but because it was so fulfilling that I want to keep going back for more. It’s kind of a like a good meal, when you’re finished with it, you wonder whether or not you ate too quickly because it seems to have been over way too quickly.
At the end of the song cycle, Peterson invites the audience to join in an a cappella singing of “O Come Let Us Adore Him” and then reads from Colossians 1, Paul’s description of Christ as the fullness of God. It’s a moving passage of Scripture and a moving moment that usually gets me every time. The musicians walk off the stage as the audience sings, also a cappella, the “Doxology.” To me, for three of the last four years (when Peterson has come to Richmond), this has been the catalyst for the Christmas season.
Experiencing this song cycle live has been a salve for my soul, it’s helped me enter into Advent with purpose, intention, and focus. It’s a reminder to me that Christmas isn’t about presents or a fat man in a suit. It’s not about an Elf on the Shelf, cider, or trees. It’s not about stockings hung by the fireplace or even caroling. Christmas is about Jesus, the greatest gift that I’ve ever received. It’s not that any of those other things are bad, at least not to me, but they take a backseat to Christ.
The other day, my 5 year old asked me why we get presents at Christmas as it’s Jesus’ birthday. I said, “Maybe he wants us to celebrate by giving gifts.” His question threw me off my game and it’s one that I probably should have started asking 35 years ago, when I was his age. Christmas is about giving, and the idea of giving gifts is just a small picture of the gift that we have been given. We’re not supposed to just take the gift and keep it to ourselves, we’re supposed to pass it on, spread the news, go and tell it on the mountain.
Advent felt as if it had arrived for me last night. I experienced anew this song cycle which so poetically captures the essence of this season for me. It’s less than three weeks until Christmas, but I’m glad I’ve got a good start. If you haven’t checked out Andrew Peterson, I encourage you to do so. It’s good music and it will help to start your Advent season moving in the right direction.
Here’s a link to the album: