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Christmas -- Pop Music

Music to remind us of mystery


I am a pushover for Christmas music. I confess that it makes up a good portion of my CD collection. Old songs mostly, but new ones, too. I’m always happy when I hear it piped over the grocery store speakers, even if it’s barely past Halloween.

While much of Christian music is fluffy, sunshiny and gives me a headache, Christmas songs transcend all that. They always remind me of mystery, of holiness, of a miracle that ripped through time and changed the world forever.

One of my favorite Christmas artists is Amy Grant. “A Christmas Album,” her first seasonal offering, was released in 1983 while I was in high school. That cassette is still in my car today. Her version of “Angels We Have Heard on High” never fails to move me. Grant’s second Christmas album, “Home for Christmas,” followed in 1992 and contained the marvelous “My Grown-Up Christmas List.”

She has just released her third Christmas album, “A Christmas to Remember.” It peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Christmas albums chart and is currently at No. 5, behind powerhouses Garth Brooks and Kenny G. It has also fared well on the mainstream Billboard album chart, rising so far to No. 36.

This success is nothing new for Grant, 39, whose Christian music career began more than 20 years ago. She was the first Christian artist to have been awarded a Platinum Album Certification (for sales of over 1 million units), has won multiple Grammies, sold millions of albums and gained fans in both the Christian and secular music markets. The Christian press has labeled her “the heroine of the genre,” and “Christian music’s own Wizard of Oz.” She recently made her acting debut in a CBS movie special and earlier this month hosted her own Christmas show with guests Tony Bennett and CeCe Winans, also on CBS. The network is reportedly excited about its growing relationship with Grant because she is “family friendly yet hip and current.”

Through all this, Grant has remained a Christian artist in the highest sense of the word. She doesn’t mention Jesus in every song anymore; she doesn’t have to. Her faith is the foundation of her life, and it flows through her music, making it relevant and nurturing for all sorts of people, even non-Christian types.

This latest Christmas album has a pleasing mix of instrumentals, old favorites and contemporary songs that lead the listener to worship. In other words, it is classic Amy Grant. One of the most moving songs on the album, “Welcome to Our World,” greets the newborn Jesus and asks for healing for our troubled, hungry hearts. “Tears are falling/Hearts are breaking/How we need to hear from God/You’ve been promised/We’ve been waiting/Welcome, Holy Child,” she sings. This is what we need, after all. Someone to “bring … peace into our violence” and heal us, someone not afraid to “wrap our injured flesh around [him], breathe our air and walk our sod.” Jesus made himself at home here, the “Word who broke heaven’s silence.”

The album’s two instrumentals are lovely. One, “Gabriel’s Oboe,” has haunted me since I first heard it in the movie “The Mission.” The other, “Highland Cathedral,” features pipes and drums in a song that Grant says is “mournful and beautiful … the kind of thing that moves your soul.” Another touching album cut is the traditional “Silent Night” — nobody out-sings Grant on hymns.

The album is not perfect. I’ve never been a big fan of “Jingle Bell Rock,” and the perky “Mister Santa” is just annoying. Grant says that the “silliness and goofiness of Christmas is all part of the magic,” but this tune, a redo of the classic “Mr. Sandman” moves from fun to outright materialism. “Mister Santa, bring us a lot,” is the gist of it. As if most of us around here don’t have too much already. Thankfully, it’s possible to program my computer to skip this song whenever it cycles through on the CD. If I never heard it again, that would be fine with me.

Wisely, Grant doesn’t end her album here. Instead, the collection’s final song is one that I could listen to again and again. “Agnus Dei,” written by Christian music superstar Michael W. Smith, is not a typical Christmas song. No mention of Jesus’ birth, choirs of angels or of Christmas at all. “Alleluia, alleluia/For our Lord God Almighty reigns … Holy, holy/Are you Lord God Almighty/Worthy is the lamb/Worthy is the lamb … Amen.” Its focus is unmistakable: God is holy. The song’s strength lies in its simplicity, its power in its clarity.

I have long admired Grant, ever since I bought her “Age to Age” album and discovered the beautiful song “El Shaddai.” At the low point of my high school inferiority, I would have gladly traded lives with her. I loved her long, curly hair, stylish clothes and the fact that she married the love of her life, Christian musician Gary Chapman, so young. I was jealous that young men in church youth groups around the country mourned at the news of the Grant wedding. I doubted then that I would ever find anyone to marry me.

Today, if I didn’t know better, I still might think about switching places. The pictures on her latest album’s CD jacket show a glowing, joyful life. There’s Amy, trim as ever, laughing with a string of tangled Christmas lights on her lap. Amy kissing a snowman. Amy walking with a lantern through a beautiful snowy field on a perfect winter’s day. You can’t tell from the pictures that it’s cold there and that she might be tired. You forget that she had professionals help her with her hair and makeup, that she probably doesn’t roll out of bed looking so lovely.

In fact, Grant’s had a tough year. She divorced Chapman after nearly 17 years of marriage, amid persistent tabloid rumors of an affair with country star Vince Gill. She insists in a recent interview with Contemporary Christian Music magazine, though, that she and Gill were just friends during Grant’s marriage. They are dating now. Gill sings on “A Christmas to Remember,” and she thanks him in the album liner notes for both his sweet voice and companionship.

It would be easy to judge Grant for this relationship that flowered so soon after her divorce. Mostly, though, it is a reminder that nobody on this planet gets to have a storybook life, in spite of what the album liner photographs imply. In the interview, Grant talked of the years of marital counseling, the struggles and difficult times. “For people that have [personally] known and loved us a long time, the divorce was not a surprise. None of this was taken lightly. It was years in the making.” She continued, “I know why God hates divorce. Because it rips you from stem to stem … This [divorce] has been just unbelievably humbling. But it has been healing. It makes me incredibly thankful that God is a God of second chances.”

This perspective on God is what keeps me coming back to Grant’s Christmas albums. They remind me, year round, that Jesus walked among us. That he heals us today in the real world, the one where marriages fall apart, and we hurt each other, and we think so little of ourselves that we’d consider trading lives with someone else. In this place, this very place, Jesus appears. He takes us as we are and loves us.

That is the miracle of the Christmas season, the miracle of the Incarnation. So let the Christmas carols play, today and always, songs that speak the truth of Emmanuel, God with us. We need his hands, his heart. We need him. Even so, even now.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Robin Taylor writes from Salt Lake City.

National Catholic Reporter, December 24, 1999