Many contemporary Christian music (CCM) artists have released Christmas music albums, a few of which I actually enjoy. All of the Amy Grant Christmas albums have graced the Advent/Christmas activities in my home for as long as I can remember. I like some of Michael W. Smith’s Christmas music. I’m a fan of some of the Our Christmas project that came out on Word Records in 1990. And…that’s about it for me for CCM Christmas albums.
Yeah, I know. I am notoriously picky with music during this season. I tolerate what I term “holiday music” and deeply love much of the music that the Church has passed down for the seasons of Advent and Christmas. My real musical love this time of year is lifting my voice with my family or with my church’s congregation in singing songs like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “Savior of the Nations Come,” “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” and “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.”
I don’t know Andrew Peterson personally, but I suspect that his feelings about music at Advent/Christmas are similar to mine. Exhibit A is Peterson’s “Christmas” album, Behold the Lamb of God. The reason I put “Christmas” in quotes there is simple. This is not a Christmas album where an artist gives his/her take on “a dozen timeless Christmas classics.” Peterson set the bar much higher by seeking to retell “the Christmas story” by writing songs and singing about the story of the birth of Christ as well as all of the important pre-Nativity activity. Therefore, there are songs about the Passover (“Passover Us”), a history of the kings of Israel (“So Long, Moses”), a song of lament from God’s chosen people in exile (“Deliver Us”), and the genealogy of the Christ from Matthew’s Gospel (“Matthew’s Begats”). The listener has to wait until the album’s eighth track (“Labor of Love”) before they hear of the birth of Christ. This is an album that encapsulates the themes of Advent (waiting, preparation, making ready) as well as the themes of Christmas (birth, nativity, adoration).
In structuring the album this way, Peterson takes seriously the pre-birth story of Christ and demonstrates in song how all of the stories of the Old Covenant were pointing to the Incarnation of Christ. The birth of Christ was not an out-of-the-blue event that was unforeseen by God nor was it a bizarre “plan B” in redemptive history. It was God’s fulfillment of the promise made in Genesis 3:15.
Peterson not only captures the panoramic scope of the story right, he also throws in many wonderful small, poetically beautiful details. The use of the covenant name of God during “Deliver Us” (“Deliver us, deliver us/O Yawheh, hear our cry”) is particularly gripping as is his re-casting of the birth of Jesus as anything but a calm, serene event (“It was not a silent night/There was blood on the ground”). Every song on the album has its captivating moments as it is the product of a gifted musician whose mind has been set ablaze by the Scriptures.
CCM is full of artists that have done a good job at telling their own stories. I’m all for writing songs about one’s own personal experiences with God, what He has done in the life of the artist, and what the artist has learned in the process. However, it takes a rare CCM artist to tell God’s story with clarity and orthodoxy. It takes an even rarer CCM artist to tell God’s story with clarity and orthodoxy affixed to music that is shot through with truth, beauty, and goodness. Peterson accomplished all of those things and more with Behold the Lamb of God. It is easily one of the most stirring Christmas albums I have heard. But above and beyond that, it is easily one of the most stirring contemporary Christian albums I’ve heard. It deserves to be mentioned near the top of any “greatest CCM albums of all-time lists” and it is one of the things I look forward to most during the seasons of Advent and Christmas.
Many holiday/Christmas albums seem nothing more than a narcissistic cash grab by artists who have little business recording such things. How else does one explain that REO Speedwagon, Billy Idol, 38 Special, Colonel Sanders, and Waffle House have all released “Christmas albums.” I’m afraid that many CCM Christmas albums strike me in the same way. Behold the Lamb of God is cut from a different cloth. It seems much more like a labor of love from an artist that has been deeply story by God’s story of redemption.
Now, if only someone could convince Peterson to turn his considerable musical/lyrical gifts toward the events of Lent/Holy Week/Easter.