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Have you ever listened carefully to the words of this familiar Christmas hymn?

O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting Light;
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.

The first stanza introduces us to one of the themes of this hymn: People move through daily life, often unaware both of God’s providential care (upholding creation, as seen in the movement of the stars) and of the movement of his salvation plan (the coming of Christ). But the reality that Jesus defies our expectations and goes largely unrecognized does nothing to diminish the reality of his significance: here, in this little town, is born the Answer to every human need from age to age!

For Christ is born of Mary,
and gathered all above,
while mortals sleep, the angels keep
their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars, together
proclaim the holy birth,
and praises sing to God the King,
and peace to men on earth.

While the humans sleep, unaware, the angels know and celebrate what God is doing. Yet even “morning stars” (Job 38:7) “wonder” at it (1 Peter 1:12).

How silently, how silently
the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him
still the dear Christ enters in.

This is where I think I’d misread the hymn in the past. When it says “so God imparts,” the so doesn’t tell us the reason God imparts but the manner. That is, in this way (“just so”) God gives his grace: in ways unexpected (to us) and unrecognized (by us) and ordinary (cp. Lk 1 in Mary’s song/Magnificat). This is true both of the Incarnation and of a Christian’s salvation–not everyone will recognize what has happened, and it may not be flashy, but just as surely (in both cases), Christ has come to live with His people! Conversion is an invisible yet real work of God; in Christ God applies the blessings of heaven to flesh-and-blood, sinful people (cp. Ephesians 1). It is a gift both heavenly and earthly, equally real in every part.

And so having reflected on those theological bits, isn’t the last stanza a logical response?

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in;
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Emmanuel.

To this day most ears still don’t hear his coming, but unbelief never damages or changes the truth (Rom. 2:3-4). When we hear the good news (the Gospel) announced by the angels (and repeated today by very ordinary Christians and pastors), we must receive it. Christ will deal with our sin so that we can be restored to him. Welcome, our Lord, Emmanuel!

Cover of Only let people be careful not to allow that ancient error to sneak into the visual arts once again, which claimed that the art of painting serves a higher spirit only if it portrays scenes from the Bible, or architecture serves a higher purpose only if it erects buildings for worship. The spirit of Christ ennobles all of life. Someone who regards nature as Jesus regarded it, who then possesses the artistic talent for transferring the received impression to a canvas and helps us to enjoy that impression, has glorified his God as a Christian.

Similarly, someone who is able to understand human life in the wealth of its manifestations and in the multiplicity of its struggles, as that must be understood with the light of God’s Word, and who knows how to transfer the received impression into the world of beauty, has interpreted the Spirit of his Lord dwelling within that life.

— Abraham Kuyper, as translated in Wisdom and Wonder: Common Grace in Science and Art, pp.181-2.

Observations:

  • This passage is part of a larger argument that Kuyper is making, viz., that relegating artistic expression to ecclesiastical life alone impoverishes public life and robs laymen of an opportunity to glorify God. That is, in reclaiming the idea that vocation outside of the church could be just as “sacred” and God-glorifying as ministerial work, the Reformers also restored the legitimacy of art outside the church (178-9).
  • For those of us who are tempted to push artistic expression completely out of the church because we see it as either extraneous or indulgent, these words of Kuyper’s offer balance: “It is therefore a gap in the life of Christianity if, because it is too far estranged from nature and too little interested in the sensate life of the imagination, it should lack the impulse to manifest itself in the world of beauty, […] thereby to glorify the name of her God in the realm of art” (181).
  • Kuyper’s thoughts here resonate in the work of Francis Schaeffer, who presents them in a more refined and concise format.
  • Within Kuyper’s ideal of “enjoying” the impressions given us by artists, he leaves room for the portrayal of struggle, i.e., the realities of life in a fallen world. This finds parallel in Schaeffer’s more extensive discussion of what he calls the “light” and “dark” themes in art (see his Art and the Bible).
  • Kuyper’s words, now over a hundred years old, serve as an older articulation of the (currently frequent) call for Christians to not merely create what Schaeffer calls “Sunday-school art,” but to be Christians who are free to be artists in every sphere of life.

The music world is full of folks (composers, conductors, performers) trying to experience the transcendent by means of music. Just this past week, my students laughed as we discussed a well-known composer trying to describe the appeal and power of music in terms that teetered on the mystical, the pantheistic, the almost-religious. The author of this piece, then, caught my attention the other day by citing  the following C.S. Lewis lines:

“Nature ‘dies’ on those who try to live for a love of nature. Coleridge ended by being insensible to her; Wordsworth, by lamenting that the glory had passed away. Say your prayers in a garden early, ignoring steadfastly the dew, the birds and the flowers, and you will come away overwhelmed by its freshness and joy; go there in order to be overwhelmed and, after a certain age, nine times out of ten nothing will happen to you.”

In his chapter of Worldliness (ed. CJ Mahaney, Crossway 2008, p. 89), Bob Kauflin shares another Lewis quote:

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them….For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

…and then follows up with these remarks (emphasis mine):

“No music, however beautiful, however impressive, however technologically creative or emotionally moving, can rival the wonder and breathtaking beauty of the Savior, who came as a man to live a perfect life and die an atoning death in our place.

[…] Music is no longer ours to use however we want. It never was. It was never meant to provide what can be found only in a relationship with the Savior.

Music is a precious gift, but it makes a terrible god.

By God’s grace, may we always know the difference.”

You will say in that day:
“I will give thanks to you, O LORD,
for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
that you might comfort me.

“Behold, God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid;
for the LORD GOD is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation.”

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day:

“Give thanks to the LORD,
call upon his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples,
proclaim that his name is exalted.
“Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously;
let this be made known in all the earth.
Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

—  Isaiah 12, ESV

“…Song is the natural expression of the spirit which is free, and no spirit is so free as that one which has discovered that its destiny is not dependent upon its striving but rather upon the infinite power of the Almighty.”

— Oswalt, NICOT commentary on Isaiah

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