Singer-songwriter Melanie Penn recently released her original Christmas album, Immanuel. From Brooklyn, New York, Penn leads worship at Redeemer Church in New York, which was founded by Tim Keller.
This Christmas album is unique in that it takes the familiar story of Christmas and re-tells it with each song from a different character in the story, using first person perspective. I had the great opportunity to interview Melanie about her catchy original Christmas song "Immanuel," and this is what she shared with me.
Please share the personal message behind the song.
In December 2016, I unexpectedly wrote a song from the perspective of one of the wise men who journeys to Bethlehem. I named the song "Follow the Star," and I sang it at a Christmas show in New York City. In the weeks that followed, I wrote more songs from the Christmas story. The perspectives were all in the first person, about the angels and people who were actually there when Christ was born: a shepherd, Gabriel, Isaiah, Joseph, Mary, the innkeeper, others. And an album came to life.
As I was getting into my project, "Immanuel" is written from the perspective of a shepherd. This was the song that made me realize that these songs were bigger than my own personal perspective. I think I was right in the sense that I didn't know an entire collective of songs held cohesively together from the first person perspective of the storytellers would end up in that place. This song was foundational to the concept of the album.
I started really looking at the Christmas story and was thinking about who these people all were as human beings. To be honest, I had never done that before. I started thinking about the people at the nativity as my brothers and sisters in the faith and as humans like me. The shepherd is like the most regular person in the story. From what I know about the shepherd, he is just a normal guy doing his job. I knew the song was going to start "Angels sang over my head." Right away we are in this moment of this guy is at work, and angels appear in the sky. I believe that literally happened and is not a metaphor. If that were to happen today, I picture a taxi driver seeing angels. Imagining what that was like, I started writing lyrics, and then I re-wrote music that reflected the cinematic and epic picture of angels appearing.
Please tell me about the Bible verses you used to write the song.
Isaiah 7:14(NKJV): "Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel."
Matthew 1:23(NKJV): "Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel," which is translated, "God with us."
Luke 2:4-9(NKJV): "Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid."
What is the takeaway message?
A lot of these songs are conjecture, and I used my imagination to picture what these people were thinking. I'll get to ask them one day if I got it right. Random guy, we don't know his religious background, and he's at work and sees angels singing. At some point, he made a decision that he could go see this child born in Bethlehem, or he could let the moment pass him by. That's not what happened; he went.
The song became to me about the very first conversion experience we have recorded in Christ's lifetime. As far as we know, the shepherds were the first group of people to go worship Christ on this side of incarnation. The song became really sweet and about anyone who encounters the truth of the gospel. Everyone has a moment where the gospel is presented to them, and they can either walk away, or they commit and worship. From a larger perspective, the song is about a soul's conversion from not believing to believing, which is captured in the last verse: "I've wandered far, I'm a field hand but I heard the song and it's changing me."
These songs are about the first ones to hear the good news. They saw signs, had dreams, heard from angels, watched the stars, and they sang. Before these songs, I never thought about how the souls in the Christmas story were just ordinary people, living "normal" lives-- a young girl, a carpenter, a shepherd. Then they encountered the supernatural, and their lives changed forever.
I didn't plan to make a Christmas album. Even as I wrestled this project to the ground and labored over these songs, I knew the project had come as a gift. May this collection be a part of your Christmas season, and may you know the miracle of a Person called Immanuel, who is God with us.
Lyrics: Angels sang over my head
But I'm just a shepherd boy
They said, "Don't be afraid,
Good news of comfort and joy we bring"
Let us adore Him, Immanuel
I was just watching a flock by night
When the sky opened up above me
They said "Go, this shall be a sign:
A baby with a mother kind"
Let us adore Him
Come, let us adore Him
God with us, He enters in
God with us, our friend
Let us adore Him like they do in heaven
I've wandered far, I'm a field hand
But I heard the song and it's changing me
A rebel heart is all I have
But all I have I will bring
Let us adore Him
Come, let us adore Him
I was watching a flock by night
I was watching a flock by night
As a songwriter, Melanie's heart is to connect people to the Lord. With a voice like an angel, she continues to creatively sing about Jesus, who offers peace, life, hope and healing. And that's ultimately the message behind "Immanuel:" enjoying the beauty of God's presence, praising Him with your whole heart and letting your light shine in a world that needs to experience the true grace and hope found only in Jesus.
This new Christmas song "Immanuel" perfectly captures the picture of Jesus being the Hope of the world who came to save us from our sins. Melanie does a phenomenal job capturing the essence of the story in the song. Do you celebrate the baby Jesus at Christmas because He's cute and a harmless baby and then put Him away the rest of the year? Jesus was born in a dirty manger, and His birth was announced to the lowest of low, the shepherds. Don't miss the significance of Jesus our Lord's birth. Give Him reverence, celebrating His entire story, His birth, His crucifixion and most of all His resurrection! We can all pray along with this gorgeous song: "A rebel heart is all I have, but all I have I will bring. Let us adore Him, come, let us adore Him, Immanuel." Amen to that!
You can find the song here. Watch the music video below.
NRT Lead Contributor Kevin Davis is a longtime fan of Christian music, an avid music collector and credits the message of Christian music for leading him to Christ. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and three daughters.
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