If you’ve ever come to see me in my office at church, you’ve probably noticed that the only seating I have is two creaky old church pews and one of my bookshelves is an antique lectern. If you’ve perused the art on my walls, you’ve probably spied a creepy, faded painting of 1950s Jesus stuck to a piece of wood. It may seem like a random hodge podge of old stuff, but for me, being surrounded by reminders of believers and particularly worship leaders who have gone before me in past generations gives me a feeling I can’t describe. It fills me with awe to think of all the people from past times and places with completely different lives and experiences as me meeting the same Lord Jesus that I have met. I think about these people choosing to place their trust in Christ and dedicating themselves to leading the worship of God in their context. I love to look back at what they did and appreciate the complete foreign-ness of their worship expressions but also the endearing familiarity of the heart and function of what they did. At this time of year, I can’t help but think of a worship ministry moment from the 18th century led by the epic worship leader of his day, Johann Sebastian Bach.
Advent 1734 was coming up and Johann wanted to write some new music to help his congregation engage the Christmas story afresh. What he came up with was a series of scripture readings combined with a six-part oratorio (no big deal) that walks you through the events surrounding Christ’s birth as though you are present in the story and sometimes even cheering the characters on from the sidelines (one of the movements is called “Haste, Ye Shepherds, Haste To Meet Him!”). Amidst the excitement of the story (and after a movement where we sing out “Make yourself ready, Zion!”) comes my favorite moment of the piece by far—the soloist from the previous movement sits down, the choir stands, there’s a moment of silence to signify the start of a new movement, and now we turn to address this Jesus who we’ve been singing about and consider our own response:
How shall I fitly meet thee, and give thee welcome due?
The nations long to greet thee, and I would greet thee too.
O fount of light, shine brightly upon my darkened heart,
that I may serve thee rightly, and know thee as thou art.
Listen to How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee (opens in Spotify)
Not only is this probably one of the most profound Christmas prayers ever written, but the melody would have had its own significance to Bach’s congregants as well. He set these words to the tune of an earlier piece he had written for Good Friday called “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” a sobering reflection on the suffering of Christ on the cross. So, as people considered how they would respond to the birth of Jesus, they did so to the tune of his gruesome death and ultimate sacrifice. Bach wanted them (and us) to approach the infant Christ not just as Mary’s miracle baby but as the incarnate God fulfilling his centuries-old promise to come and redeem His world. This isn’t just a story of a baby being born. The story of Christ’s birth signifies the birth of a new creation, a new covenant, and a new era of God’s kingdom.
So Bach leads us in asking the question we all must face—how will I respond to the coming of this Jesus? How shall I fitly meet the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), the savior of the world (John 4:42) and the hope of every nation (Matthew 12:21)? The world for centuries has longed for Him to come. Now that He has, what will I do? Perhaps the best response is to acknowledge Him as the one light that can shine brightly enough upon our darkened hearts to reveal God to us.
Lord, in the radiant light of Christ who you have sent to us in your love and grace, let us “know thee as thou art” this Advent season.