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Look for the Story Behind the Song

garlandJust before Christmas we took a snowy ride into Providence for the Donny & Marie Christmas in Providence show. It was a high-energy production filled with all the show business trappings: imaginative lighting, excellent quality sound, exuberant dancing, stories and humor, and a wide genre of music, most of it of a Christmas theme. The Osmonds aren't bashful about their faith and do a good bit of charity promotion. We learned after the show that earlier in the day they had hosted a dinner for Rhode Island homeless persons, sang for them, and gave out tickets for the evening show. Christmas themes are a little more believable with them than some.

Midway through the show, they launched into a version of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" that was like nothing I had ever heard and perhaps not like anything Charles Wesley could ever have imagined. OK, it is show business; but the energy, the lights, the beat, the sheer exuberance of the singing was captivating and fun. One might even say it was joy to the world!

Ever the pastor, I found myself wondering: "Does this crowd really know the story behind this song?" Mind you, I wasn't being judgmental. I just found it wonderfully ironic that, hidden in a an evening of entertainment, was a powerful truth: "Hail! the Son of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, Risen with healing in his wings Mild he lays his glory by, Born that man no more may die: Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth. Hark! the herald angels sing, "Glory to the newborn King!" Wow! It was all there! Right in the middle of a glitzy show in the Dunking' Donuts Center just before Christmas. A powerful theological witness for anyone who was willing to look for the story behind the song.

Earlier in the month, I was privileged to sing in the Rhode Island Civic Chorale concert of Handel’s "Messiah." Every time I have sung it, I have gotten a lesson in theology. Indeed, in the musical score, every Recitative, every Air, every Chorus comes with a reference to Scripture - a story behind the song!

Now there is a warning that comes with all this: sometimes, when you look for the story behind the song, you are disappointed. The Wizard of Oz comes to mind. When Dorothy pulled back the curtain, all she found was a little man pretending to be something he wasn't. The story behind the song can be less than it seems: shallow, one dimensional, even harmful. Even when such music is done well, it isn't very satisfying in the long run.

We have just come through a season filled with music. People of faith can find this to be a wonderful gift. When we take the time to look for the story behind the song, especially in good music, we discover rich sources of insight for our journey of faith. At the heart of the Christmas story is Immanuel, God with us. A child, born to be a Prince of Peace, grows into a teacher, a healer, a model for faithful living. And we know that even death cannot silence the story. It is a hope-filled story, a story of Love incarnate. The real beauty of Christmas music is that the story lives on beyond the song. And, for those who remember the story, it has the power to transform a weary world. That is very good news indeed!

The Reverend F. Richard Garland is a retired United Methodist pastor, living in New England. He and his wife, Catherine Sprigg, divide their time between North Kingstown, RI, and Nashua, NH.

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