I distinctly remember sitting down on my back porch for the first time with a Walkman and headphones – yes, many decades ago – and pressing the ‘play’ button. A crisp, high-fidelity recording of one of my favorite musical numbers came through with such clarity, I almost glanced across my backyard to make sure a full orchestra wasn’t set up behind me for a personal concert. I had listened to record players and cassette decks before but never with headphones and never with such real-life sound. I was overwhelmed with the idea that I could listen to such a quality production with just a little machine in my hands.
Since that time, the personal player has taken many forms and now is not much more than the earpieces themselves. And listening to music while engaged in daily activities is commonplace – on the street, in the gym, while doing housework, while studying, while working, pretty much anywhere you don’t need to be in conversation with someone or something near you. While it blocks out your environment – and those who may want to connect with you! – it provides a soundtrack for your work.
In many cases, the soundtrack is simply background music, leisure listening for one’s enjoyment to pass the time or survive tedious or boring work. But in many cases, music with a specific mood, outlook, or energy level is chosen for a given activity. We can choose romantic music for an evening with a significant other. We can choose quiet nature music for a yoga class. We can choose high-energy music to get a party going. Sometimes we have certain songs that we want to hear for specific moments such as the Rocky theme song for a hard workout or “We Are the Champions” for a victory on the ballfield. In these cases, the soundtrack isn’t chosen just for leisure but has a purpose: to set a mood, to confirm a reality, or to inspire us in a certain direction. For the longest time, THE opening song for the all-dance portion of a wedding reception was Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration.”
The choice of a soundtrack can be an important decision. It sends a message about how we want to think about an event, an activity, or a moment. In a sense, it writes the script for an otherwise random or uninspired occurrence. After years of Sousa marches as the standard fare for political rallies, the Clinton team decided to take a different tack after their final rally in the 1992 campaign. When Bill Clinton finished his final speech at the Democratic National Convention, Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” came on. Nothing communicated ‘this is a new era’ like that song. It was transformative. I bet the song alone won him votes!
What’s my point? Christmas is a soundtrack. There were thousands of babies born in Palestine in 3 A.D. No doubt, hundreds were born in less-than-ideal conditions: if not barns or stables, mud huts, dingy rooms, dark corners; there were many poor people at that time in those parts. Scholars tell us that wise men didn’t show up until months or even a few years after Jesus’ birth. If shepherds got tipped off by some fantastic vision in the sky, it didn’t get out into the public ear and probably made his parents more nervous than anything else. In short, there was little about the actual circumstances of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth to indicate anything special. There was nothing glorious about it at the time. Like most births, it was likely painful, messy, and exhausting.
But we have a soundtrack. And for those of the Christian tradition, the soundtrack says there was a greater significance to this birth. That it was part of a bigger plan, a heavenly strategy that held epic implications. That it somehow effected the benevolence of a Higher Being. That in some cosmic way, God was with that boy. With us. Through the boy.
The soundtrack didn’t play during the event – neither on a Walkman, nor a harp, nor a lyre. But we have it now. And the good thing is, we can play it now. Whether in music form, in narrative form, acted out on stage, shared around a dinner table, through a picture or a poem, we can press ‘play’ and sense in an event, an activity, or any random normal routine activity going on around us today the same thing: a bigger plan, a heavenly strategy, the benevolence of a Higher Being.
It gets better: we can not only project the soundtrack; we can become it. When we step outside of ourselves and embody the unconditional love, the self-sacrificial grace, the unanticipated compassion toward someone we don’t know, don’t like, or don’t owe anything to in the form of a gesture offered to a neighbor in need, a prayer for hope, a gracious act of hospitality, or a random act of kindness, we bring the narrative to life!
In fact, we don’t need angels, we don’t need a manger, we don’t need shepherds or wise men, we don’t need a moving star, and we certainly don’t need a Walkman to invoke the same meaning into our context. We have the soundtrack! Open your table, visit the shut-in, forgive a wrongdoer, create justice, relieve suffering – make it a crisp, high-fidelity rendition of the Master Design.
Christmas is a soundtrack. Press ‘play.’