—one of my heroes and one of the most biblically astute songwriters I know—once told me that when we start finishing the bible’s sentences for it, it’s time for us to get a new translation or otherwise mix things up a little. His point was that the bible, its' characters, and the God they point to should surprise us, and that the moment we think we have it all figured out is probably the moment we’ve lost touch with the living mystery of it all.
Christmas is especially vulnerable to our familiarity with it. To complicate matters, there are cultural elements that muddy the waters and further conceal the holy mystery of it from us: the harried consumerism, the high expectations and disappointment that often follows, the pressure, the manger scene on one side of the lawn and Santa’s sleigh on the other. (I’m not knocking Santa—I think Jesus would approve of such a kindly man, though perhaps try to persuade him to abandon his penchant for keeping a list of who’s naughty and nice. It’s not good to hold that kind of information over people.)
All of this was on my mind as I began to wonder about recording a Christmas album
. Truthfully, I had a moment where I thought of the sheer number of Christmas albums already out there and wondered, “Jason, why add another Christmas record to the pain of the world?” :-)
I decided if I was going to do this, I needed to find the right purpose behind it.
I thought of a personal Christmas tradition of mine where I pull a book down from the shelf every year the week of Christmas. The book is by author Frederick Buechner and is called Peculiar Treasures (later reprinted in a compendium called Beyond Words for those who may want to look it up—and you should! It’s really good). In it, Buechner writes short chapters on biblical characters we think we know, but whose humanity has likely worn off from years of man-handling in sermon illustrations and on Sunday school flannel boards. Able to finish their sentences for them, many of these beloved characters have ceased being real people to us and have instead become caricatures or mere emblems. But under Buechner’s pen they come alive again to surprise, delight, and even break my heart.
Elsewhere in his own memoirs, Buechner has said, “the story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.” He believed that if he told human stories as honestly as he knew how—whether his own story or those of long lost bible characters—that their stories would look very much like ours and we would say, “me too.”
And so it is that every year I read Buechner’s entries for the characters who appear in the Christmas story, and every year I find myself saying, “me too!”
I decided that this was a worthy purpose for a Christmas record and I set out to write songs either to or from each of the characters in the Christmas narrative in hopes of recovering a bit of their humanity that might cause people to say, “me too!” In this way, I hoped listeners might find themselves inside the Christmas narrative, that they might take the Christmas story personally.
The innkeeper overbooked and overrun by all that running a business like an Inn requires of him, so bleary eyed by demands that he misses the Sabbath Rest that arrives on his doorstep; the young girl who discovers the honor as well as the cost of being chosen; the young man who must choose between anger and forgiveness when he learns that the girl he loves is pregnant with someone else’s child; the wise man who begins to realize that the Christ child might desire something even more precious than the gift of gold he’s brought—that the newborn king may long for the man to give the gift of himself. And then there’s Jesus himself, the child who comes to make even the most hard-bitten among us children again.
As I wrote these songs, it became clear that nearly all of these characters were in the midst of some kind of crises, though God is with them, always leading them deeper into his joy. This made their story all the more meaningful, reminding me that joy is not the absence of conflict, but rather joy is the presence of God. Emmanuel, God is with us! I hope you take that personally.
Jason Gray is a recording artist for Centricity Records. His new album, Christmas Stories: Repeat the Sounding Joy is available now.