I have few memories from my youth more vivid, more alive, than singing with my father’s choir during the weeks leading up to Christmas—a season pregnant with expectation and illuminated with hope in the coming King; a season first introduced to the world with music from heaven brought down to humans by a choir of angels.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, then, that this music of the Incarnation—music of the eternal Word made flesh (John 1:14)—has seeped so deeply into my bones. Music and memory are inextricably intertwined. And it seems to me that the songs that echo and resonate most powerfully within me are those that celebrate Jesus’ birth; our songs that echo the songs of God’s out-of-this-world choir; human and angel songs of God with us, of God becoming one of us, of God’s still-tangible presence. I’ve always wondered why.
My suspicion is that “musicking”1—the act of making music—is itself an essentially incarnational, fully embodied practice. This can be easy to forget, given the way we tend to talk about music. When we say “music,” we’re often referring to written notes on a page, or an audio recording of a performance. But composers and performers alike recognize that in the best sense, neither of those things is truly music. The notated page may well contain highly detailed instructions for performance, complete with dynamic markings and other directions for interpretation. But music is principally what happens when those written notes take on breath in singers’ vocal folds and become sound waves reverberating from their bodies—when the words on the page become flesh.
Music is what people do. A recording of a performance may capture sound and accurately translate it into the binary code of a digital file or grooves on a vinyl record. But even when the recording is played through speakers, those frequencies emanating through the air become music only in the listener’s ear. Most of us have likely heard the philosophical question “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Perhaps it does. But it certainly doesn’t make music.
Music is most clearly intelligible to us when it is embodied in a human being. What more appropriate medium could there be for celebrating the eternally preexisting Word’s first human cry, the fully embodied and fully human self-revelation of God?
I’ve come to believe that there are three ways that making music together can enliven our participation, as the communal body of Christ, in the reality of Jesus’ incarnation. Each of these ways embodies a powerful paradoxical truth typified in Jesus Christ Himself.
First paradox: music interweaves the transcendent and the immanent. It’s commonly said that music is a universal language, but that’s not quite accurate. For the world is filled with countless musics, each with its own logic, practices, and meanings. What is universally true is that music is cosmically embedded. The sounds we organize, produce, and hear are part of God’s created order. We don’t make music out of nothing. Every song is, in a sense, preexisting, in that it’s composed of elements that God has made.2 When we utilize these common constituents of the created cosmos—to make metal into strings, wood into keys, and our own bodies into singing voices—we send vibrations through the atmosphere we all breathe. A single song of praise can resonate in all who have gathered to worship God, physically connecting us in a sonic affirmation of shared faith. In this sense music is, like the Jesus we celebrate, transcendent.
But also, like Jesus, music is immanent, it’s personal, and it’s particular. Jesus did not dwell among us as a generic human being. He was born as a first-century, Palestinian, Jewish son of a carpenter. Jesus drew close to us not only physically but also culturally in a particular way, to the extent of becoming specifically identified as native to a town of dubious reputation (John 1:45, 46). This was essential because even universal truth must be understood through the particularities of language and culture. One way to guarantee misunderstanding is to communicate in the exact same way to different people. Particularity is what makes universality possible in our diverse world. Musics are immanent in the myriad of stylistically specific ways they embody an animating hope that unites all followers of Jesus—“whosoevers” from every cline and every time, without regard to epoch, ethnicity, or class(John 1:12; 3:16; Gal. 3:28).
The power of “musicking” together is not that we all have the same experience, but rather that we have unique and particular experiences at the same time.
Second paradox: music can be both an act of revelation and an act of response. Jesus embodied both God’s perfect self-revelation and a perfect human response to God. On the one hand, seeing Him shows us the Father (John 14:9); on the other the sinless life of this one human confounded all the forces of evil: though “he himself was tested” (Heb. 2:18),3 no discordant note of sin ever marred the perfect symphony that was His life. He could openly challenge: “Which of you convicts me of sin?” (John 8:46).
Our own human activity of making music will never reach His perfection. But by cooperation with the Holy Spirit, by being in tune with the Holy Spirit, we can musically enliven both God’s inspired words to us and our words of response to God.4 Consider how the united praise and prayer and testimony of early saints, scorning the devil’s menace and his persecuting hand, rocked the very building where the believers were assembled (Acts 4:24-31). Such is the power of synchronized praise. We should therefore find it no surprise that the angels chose to proclaim Jesus’ birth in a song of praise: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:14).
At times words seem wholly insufficient and music feels necessary to convey the full sense of a revelatory moment. This impetus to sing is equally true of our responses to who God is, what God has done, and God’s self-giving presence. Whether we praise God for His unfailing faithfulness and love or lament the circumstances of our beautiful yet broken world, whether we ask for help or give thanks for what we already have, music enables us to honestly bring our whole selves—body, mind, and spirit—before our Creator and Redeemer. Music can enliven our participation in divine revelation and human response alike.
Third paradox: although music is inherently time-bound, it also points beyond time. Making music is a way of playing with and shaping our experience of time. Through rhythm and meter, sound and silence, tempo and duration, we become aware of time’s qualitative and not merely quantitative dimensions. Yet this experience of time also points to realities that preexist and continue beyond the present moment.
When “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14), God entered time qualitatively and quantitatively. Jesus experienced what it meant to feel the passing of time, to undergo change, to grow older, to die. This passing of time, this experience of growing and dying, binds us all together as human beings and connects us, even now, with God.
So it’s no wonder sharing time together through sacred music making can be such a spiritually significant experience. Because musics differ and our individual interpretations of the same music vary, our personal understandings of a specific song are never identical. That’s why music is so powerful. The power of “musicking” together is not that we all have the same experience, but rather that we have unique and particular experiences at the same time.
lmist captures well the universality and particularity of our privilege of worship and praise: “Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the Lord, O my soul” (Ps. 103:22). The music of his praise is at once both cosmic and personal. In this way, each within our own individuality, we are able to share time together in musical worship of God.
Like Jesus, this time-bound human practice can also point beyond our musical creation to a world we did not create but are graciously invited into in all our human diversity. Jesus entered our world to meet us in our present time and condition and illuminate an awe-inspiring hope beyond the horizon of our vision: the God who “became flesh and lived among us” will come again and take us to Himself (John 14:3) so that we might dwell in complete unity with one another and with God.
The incarnate Christ took on not only our flesh but also our time—the fullness of our human experience. He was born according to a temporal schedule, and in the manner of humans like you and me, “born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive” (Gal. 4:4, 5) new possibilities in life that sin had made impossible. He came and lived and overcame and died and rose again for our sake so that through Him, and together with Him, we might begin to more properly comprehend, by experience, life’s greatest definition of reality—divine love (1 Cor. 13:13).
His coming assures us that the eternal logic of divine love, out of which we were created, will one day soon be fully realized again. The angels sang to let us know that the perfect is on its way (verse 10). All earthly music that proclaims this logic, this Word made flesh, transforms our time into a foretaste of the perfect world once known and yet to come: a world without injustice, exclusion, and division—a world of restored love—that we can practice embodying now.5 Such songs are the ones we want to seep deeply into our bones.
My maternal grandmother (“Nana”) lived a full and generous life. As anyone who has lost a loved one to the relentless march of aging knows, we don’t fall apart all at once. During my final visit with her, she was as mischievous and loving as ever. She recognized me but couldn’t quite figure out which grandchild I was. She knew I was married. But she had my spouse mixed up. It didn’t matter. I was happy to see her. My mother spent time with her after we’d all left for the day. Together they did what was always one of Nana’s favorite activities: they sang hymns. Somehow this aging woman, in her final chapter of life, who was uncertain of even my name, could still remember every word of the hymns they sang.
Music therapists, like Alicia Claire, have come to understand that “music, unlike language, is not seated in a specific area of the brain but processed across many parts. ‘You can’t rub out music unless the brain is completely gone.’ ”6 So even as our bodies inevitably fail, even as we experience the final cadences of our finite lifetimes, we can still remember songs that have taken root inside us—songs of love, songs of hope, songs of the Incarnation. The music that remains embodied in us as the rest seems to unravel can remind us of a God who was embodied with us, remains with us, and draws us into a future beyond our time.
I have few memories from my youth more vivid and alive than singing in my father’s choir during the weeks leading up to Christmas—a season pregnant with expectation and illuminated with hope in the coming King. Thank God. When all else fails, that music of the Incarnation will remain enfleshed in me, one of many musics of the Incarnation that resound in us all.
Nicholas Zork serves as minister for worship and the arts at Church of the Advent Hope in New York City.