The Making of an Advent Musical

Over two thousand years ago, some things happened that shaped all of our lives. Jesus happened. He happened in the way that he meant to happen, and not as people expected. He happened in a way that forsook his universal royalty as the Son of God, and he became a lowly servant. He came humbly, and he lived humbly. They wanted him to come with sword unsheathed, and take Rome by force and deliver the wealth of the nations into the hands of the Jews. Christmas was a rude awakening. “No room in the Inn” is not the phrase the Jews of the time would have connected with their Messiah. Matthew 2 says that all Jerusalem was troubled when the Magi asked directions to the one “Born king of the Jews.” Of course, today we just want him to bring us presents, bless the pumpkin pie, and keep the family intact for the day.

What has happened to the way Christians view this “holiday season” business? That’s a big question for another blog, but for now I can say that such a question plagues me every year and it’s enough to start writing. The catch is, for the budget, we need to encourage and challenge the church about the coming of our Lord with no more than four actors, a guitar, and some pipe and drape. The prophets worked with less. So we take some moments referred to (sometimes barely) in Scripture, and imagine the reality of it, then place it in a modernized atmosphere. This is dangerous, because historical context is crucial in understanding Scripture, since the culture it was written in and to was so different from what we know today. So how do we do that without being heretics?

First, we take a moment, like Mary having to tell Joseph that she is pregnant and why. This conversation is not laid out in Scripture, but we know it happened. We also know that after it, Joseph didn’t believe her. He was going to divorce quietly, to be kind to her. I don’t need to go into details for you to imagine that this conversation must have been horribly awkward. The other catch is that they didn’t meet at college and fall in love in the student section at a football game and decide to spend the rest of their lives together; they were betrothed. They may have barely known each other. So whatever we do to modernize so that we, today, can connect with them culturally, we lose something in actual context. For this, there is a give and take.

The take is to pray like crazy and ask God why he put this moment on our hearts for the script. Then we write it, and rewrite it. Then there’s the give. I send it to a couple of trustworthy pastors who will scrutinize it as if it were supposed to be a historical documentary (it’s not). Then rewrite it, again. It’s a give because, as a Christian writer, my work is subject to and for the purpose of the truth. As Christians, our art should always be open to the scrutiny of wiser Christians who have gone before us, or it may not be Christian art at all.

As for the music, we take songs that have been around for centuries and adapt the music so you hear it differently. You see, when you’ve grown up hearing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” sung every year by the same guy in the choir (or praise team), you begin to miss lines like “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light,” and “Be born in us today.” That one line was so powerful, but not anymore, because Sheryl Crow might sing it as mere holiday tradition in Times Square. But Jesus came to a dark place. His family had to run and hide in Egypt so Herod couldn’t kill him. He lost sleep in order to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and loose the bonds of wickedness (Isaiah 58) while still spending time in prayer to the Father. The world was against him the moment he got here, not just the day he died for us.

We wrote an original song for it too, and I think you’ll like it. But whatever we write, we make every effort to be clear about the good news, that Jesus is more than a stocking stuffer. That Jesus and the Father loved us so much that it was worth becoming a poor, unloved, unwanted member of society, and skipping meals and sleep to help the helpless, to have incomparable compassion on those who loved him not. That, even in these dark streets, he would choose to shine no matter what so that we might have the true light to gather to and follow. Whatever you celebrate this “holiday season,” celebrate that. Eat cookies, give meaningful gifts, sure. But celebrate the gritty, suffering servant life that the King of kings stooped to for you and yours. Go feed the hungry, and offer shelter to those without it. Ask me where you can serve this Christmas in a way that will make Jesus feel celebrated, and I will find what’s going on and let you know. Some of us will be serving pancakes to homeless folk on Christmas morning, for example. Oh, and check the schedule for a public performance of The WordPlayers original Advent piece Yet In Thy Dark Streets at a church near you.

Talk to me.

Ethan Norman
Artistic Associate, The WordPlayers