Ear of the Beholder
To arrive near the end of the 20th century, as I did, means carrying a certain fear: that all the abiding traditions are already spoken for, that—as songwriter Timothy Showalter put it— “everything good had been made.”
Take Christmastide. Many of the rituals and practices I observe were established decades, if not centuries ago, by saints whose faithful footsteps I retrace and mindful melodies I rehearse. I thank God for my place in this lineage, but my mind wanders as I wonder what mark my generation might leave upon the glorious season.
Along comes Andrew Peterson, refreshing my memory as he sings the answer to my question. Twenty years ago, Peterson midwifed Behold the Lamb of God, a song cycle stretching from prophecy to pregnancy to the fulfillment of both. These dozen songs weave seamlessly, elegantly into my sojourn through the season, as they do for so many others. Few figures have done more for my experience and understanding of Christmas; Peterson’s contribution ranks behind the gospel writers, but well ahead of the world’s George Baileys and Clark Griswolds, inhabiting similar space as Charles Dickens.
Beginning as humbly as any folk-rock opera could, Behold the Lamb of God truly has become a tradition unto itself, something modern pilgrims set their clocks and compasses by. What started as a set of songs and a gathering of musical friends crescendoed into an annual tour, an album, a concert film and more.
Twice I’ve witnessed Behold the Lamb of God live. My first hearing occurred at that great cathedral of American music, Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium; the second came at a sacred space of another sort, Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Each time, I listened and learned from lovely acts of musical generosity, a giving and receiving initiated by Peterson and enfolding cohorts such as Andrew Osenga, Pierce Pettis, Jill Phillips, Andy Gullahorn, Ben Shive and others.
The music of Behold the Lamb of God resounds with the same warmth as an unassuming set of white Christmas lights, powerful in their peacefulness. The poetry they meet and mold comes to us both celestial and earthy, as if written with the rough hands of the carpenters who move through the Biblical story.
Peterson and Co. sing across, over and through genres. They deliver something like oral history, set Jesus’ genealogy to a spritely tune and express the pining of Israel in a way that mirrors the depth of our universal ache. They render standards such as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and mine the depths of Mary’s pain and passion. These songs find the unity between the Old and New Testaments; they connect the dots between Genesis, Revelation and Jesus’ every movement between. Without knowing it, Behold the Lamb of God underlines the words of the late nun Edith Stein:
"The Christian mysteries are an indivisible whole. If we become immersed in one, we are led to all the others. Thus the way from Bethlehem leads inevitably to Golgotha, from the crib to the cross."
Plainspoken yet profound, these songs don’t stop at delivering sound, storied theology. They reject the whiplash rhythms of the unexamined season. They enter a tug-of-war waged between true hope and the shiny objects which promise to sate our hopes, yet only defer them for another day. Peterson’s songs beckon us to live by a truer, gentler meter and observe the real rhythms of Christmas: pausing, recounting, beholding, worshipping.
Beholding both eases and intensifies the waiting we experience from within this second Advent. Lovesick travelers know this tension staring at a picture of their sweetheart before lying down to sleep hundreds of miles away; expectant mothers understand it as their hands trace the contours of their brimming bellies. And each of us who finds our way in and through Christ feels the alternating twinges of pain and pleasure as we behold the one upon which we wait.
To twist one of Paul’s phrases, thankfully we do not wait as those without hope. Henri Nouwen once described gospel waiting as “open-ended,” as possessing “a sense of promise.” He wrote:
"We can only really wait if what we are waiting for has already begun for us. So waiting is never a movement from nothing to something. It is always a movement from something to something more."
This sort of waiting, and this grade of hope, suffuses Behold the Lamb of God. The music begins and winds to a close with bookend calls to believe; it gestures to promises made and promises that will be kept. The musical themes return just in time, just like the themes of suffering and glory, dawning and consummation repeat through the Scriptural story—and through our own.
Above all, this sense of the already and the not yet, this recognition of what is left undone and all that is on the cusp of completion, seals Behold the Lamb of God as a tradition for listeners like me. As we wait, our spirits lift, returning to our Christmas canon and rehearsing lyrics which communicate the life and love that is and is to come. To the ear of the beholder, these words sound oh so sweet:
So sing out with joy for the brave little boy
who was God, but he made himself nothing
he gave up his pride and he came here to die like a man.