I love the jazzy sounds of Christmas. More to the point, I love jazz. And when jazz and Christmas intersect, my holiday celebration is truly enriched.
Have you ever listened to the toe-tapping sound of Wynton Marsalis' "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" or the soulful harmonies of Manhattan Transfer's "Silent Night, Holy Night"? They're a treat for one's ears and a joy for one's spirit.
I've discovered that jazz reveals some truths about the Christian faith that are hidden between the lines. Kevin Twit, founder of Indelible Grace Music, talks about the relationship between jazz and faith in an article for BreakPoint Worldview magazine. And while his insights are appropriate for any time of the year, they seem particularly pertinent in December.
So, what can jazz teach us about faith?
Jazz challenges disembodiment.
Jazz activates the body: Feet move, heads bob and fingers snap. Our entire being-body and soul-is in sync with the sound.
One of the real dangers for the Christian message today is the denial of the physical nature of faith. We aren't spiritual entities trapped within "evil" bodies. That was a second-century heresy (Gnosticism) that unfortunately has found favor again among many who want only an ethereal type of spirituality.
Christmas talks about incarnation-God in flesh. We celebrate a God who gets "down in the dirt" with us and for us.
Jazz fights against privatization.
Listeners are drawn into the music as performers begin with a basic melody and branch out with more intricate elements. It's not a one-man show but an interplay between performers and listeners. So it is with faith. To isolate oneself from others is to reject the very intent of the Master's music, namely, to incorporate everyone into faith's gig.
Jazz reminds us of the "already/not yet" aspect of faith.
The blues, rooted in African spirituals, often paint a sorrowful picture of life rocked by suffering and despair. Yet, in the midst of loss and grief, hope remains. So it is with faith. Our present-day (already) painful experiences needn't overwhelm us. The hope of a (not yet) new day is assured. Christmas births the promise.
Jazz shows us our need for roots and wings.
Jazz is about tradition, rooted in African folk music, New Orleans brass bands and Missouri ragtime, and passed along from generation to generation. But it also invites free flight to find one's "voice," while learning from previous masters. Like jazz, faith ventures into the unknown but is schooled in the saints who have come before. We have much to learn from them, but we are free to test our wings.
Jazz teaches us improvisation as a way of life.
A musical score keeps musicians on track. Jazz, on the other hand, opens up opportunities for discovery. That doesn't mean there's a lack of structure in the music. Without structure, a musician's improvisation becomes self-absorbed and narcissistic.
Like jazz, we step out in faith and seek to live in new ways in our relationship with God and with others. It can be challenging, even frightening at times, when we let go. But if we're grounded in the One who provides the ultimate structure to life, we can be sure we will not drift aimlessly without purpose or a clear destination.
In December, I listen to various jazzy versions of Christmas music, not to the exclusion of more traditional songs and carols, but as a reminder that there's more to seasonal music than choral arrangements and hymn fests.
If you haven't heard some of the classics of jazz, Christmas or otherwise, take time to enjoy their unique brand of music — whether performed by Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane or Sarah Vaughan. (And that, of course, is just a short list.) You might discover that they'll not only brighten your Christmas celebration but also enrich the ageless story of faith for seasons to come.
From Tom Schaefer's book, Seasons of Faith: Longing for God in Fall, Winter, Spring and Summer (BookSurge, 2007; available from Amazon).
This week's front page features:
Emmanuel fleeing: Matthew's Gospel reveals a God who comes into creation for us and, with us, runs for his life.
Shining voices: A cappella music brightens holy season.
Anderson's Christmas: Walt Wangerin shares a gift discovered in Tanzania.
St. Nick's helper: Mom fills 700 stockings for Marines.
Also: Editor: A Christmas letter.
Also: Youngchurch: Monkeys and lemonade.
Also: Worship whys: Remembering.
This week on our blog:
Andrea Pohlmann writes about how we give.
Kathy Kastilahn blogs about the problem with poinsettias — and it's not what you think.
Michael Watson (right), reflects on a photo assignment that put him face-to-face with what it means to confront hunger on a daily basis.
Keep up with our guest blogger:
Justin Baxter (right), a student at Pacific Lutheran Seminary, Berkeley, Calif., is serving an internship at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Oakland, Calif. He's keeping a blog for The Lutheran about his experience. This week, he writes about Advent and hope in the desert.
Merry Christmas from the staff of The Lutheran:
The entire staff of The Lutheran wishes you a Merry Christmas.
Most of our staff will take time off to celebrate the holiday and spend time with our families and friends.
Look for the January issue online Dec. 26. This e-newsletter will return Jan. 8.
We look forward to being in touch with you in the new year.
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