God with us.
by Dave Skipper
What on earth connects Christmas to noise? I mean apart from the noise of Christmas jingles and pop songs that bombard us at this time of year? Let me explore a few other thoughts…
A Christian Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ two thousand years ago. One well-known traditional Christmas carol devoted to the theme of Christ’s birth is Silent Night. Here is the first verse:
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
‘Round yon virgin Mother and Child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace
It’s a nice lullaby, but there is a little problem with it: nights with newborn babies are far from silent! For sure there are tranquil moments in between, the loving gaze of a wonder-filled mother when all others are asleep and calm. So maybe ‘Silent moment, holy moment’ would be more apt?
But surely the worst culprit when it comes to romanticising baby Jesus is in another famous carol, Away in a Manger:
The cattle are lowing
The Baby awakes
But little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes
Really? No crying? Ok, it is possible. But I think it’s a rather skewed picture of how it must have really been. The night of Jesus’ birth was not nice and cosy. A young mother, already exhausted after a long journey, has to give birth among the raw sounds and smells of farm animals in a cave (more likely in 1st-century Israel than the typical stable building of Christmas cards), there being no room or bed available in the town of Bethlehem where they have just arrived into, with no pain relief or medical assistance or hospital bed or any comforts… this was undoubtedly a very messy, very painful, and very noisy affair. A false sentimentality can threaten to domesticate and sanitise Christ’s entrance into the world.
Aside from the unusual and uncomfortable circumstances of his birth, Jesus was an ordinary baby: blood, sweat, tears, mucus, wee, poo, and all! He was not cocooned from the harsh physical realities of this world. On the contrary, he came to be immersed in and to embrace the full experience of humanity. Yet at the same time, Jesus was a baby like no other, special beyond compare. Christians together believe that he is the Eternal Son of God, he who had no beginning choosing to come and take on human flesh in order to save his people and redeem his creation for all eternity.
The incarnation is the the Christian doctrine (belief) that in Jesus, God became man. That Jesus Christ is both fully 100% God and fully 100% man is one of the most crucial beliefs of the Christian faith, while being a profound and unfathomable mystery –
- the eternal God… took on our mortal frame
- the Creator of all… inhabited created flesh
- the Mighty One… was born as a helpless baby
- He who cannot be bound by time nor space… entered human history in a specific place at a specific time
I love how the essence of the incarnation is captured in these words of Charles Wesley’s 18th-century hymn (see Appendix B below for the full text of this hymn):
Our God contracted to a span
Incomprehensibly made man.
How does the Bible describe the incarnation? A great example is in the Gospel according to John. First, Jesus is described as the Word, eternally God:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
– from the Bible: John 1:1-5
Then, Jesus born as a man:
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
– from the Bible: John 1:14
How did Jesus enter the noise of our world? Not in pomp and ceremony, and not in silence either. He arrived with the instinctive noise of a baby’s cry. More than that: he entered his own world that he had created. He created all things through his word, and he continues to sustains all things by how powerful word. And yet he announced his own arrival with the wordless noise of a baby’s cry. And it was his cry, making his own the quintessential noise of a broken, desperate, and frail humanity.
A cry for breath from the Breath of Life.
A cry of hunger from the Bread of Life.
A cry for comfort from the Everlasting Arms.
A cry of dependence from the Dependable One.
A cry for his mother from the Maker of all.
Jesus the noise-maker! We all start that way, yet he had planned his own cry from ages past!
One of the most precious names of Jesus is Immanuel. Here is the backstory:
“This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: his mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).”
– from the Bible: Matthew 1:18-23
Immanuel: God with us! The incarnation is about the presence of God come to dwell with us. The Bible often refers to God’s inescapable presence, the fact that he is everywhere (omnipresent). The first half of Psalm 139 is a great example (see Appendix C below). God is not somewhere ‘out there’, but as the pre-existent One who is before and behind all other existences (sic) he is even closer to us than we are to ourselves. But as he is spirit, with no body or physical aspect, we cannot sense him apart from faith, the faith that he gives. But then in Jesus, the Son of God and second person of the holy Trinity, God took on human flesh so that he can be with us in our own creatureliness too.
In the realm of our physical senses and sensations there is one that stands out alone as a small reminder or analogy of the presence of God: sound. Soundwaves penetrate our whole being. We are constantly immersed in a world of sound and vibration that we cannot escape from; when we are asleep, or even even if we are deaf, those vibrations still go into us, and the louder and more extreme those sounds are the more our body – inside and out – receives and senses those vibrations. Indeed, this is one of the points about live harsh noise music that attracts its appreciators: the whole-body experience, the immersion, the physicality of it. If our ears and bodies are open to noise in the form of extreme frequencies, volumes, and textures, we can discover therein a potent symbol of ‘God with us’ both in his inescapability and in his incarnate physicality in Jesus. Noise is no substitute for Jesus of course, but noise can be a part of an outlook and faith that seeks to find and welcome Jesus in everyday life.
To acknowledge Jesus as Immanuel, God with us, and to call him by that name, is a conscious decision. It is to shift from being in God’s ‘general presence’ which no-one can escape from, to also being in his ‘special presence’ in Jesus. But how is Jesus ‘God with us’ now that he is not physically present here on earth anymore? His presence denotes fellowship, company, conversation, protection, and more. But there is no physical overlap of his body with ours – he is now present (with those who trust in him) by the Holy Spirit. He enters us by his words (i.e. the Bible, scripture) – remember that sounds penetrate and inter-penetrate – and by His Spirit. Therefore we find many times in the New Testament references to the Holy Spirit being ‘in us,’ referring to believers.
The reality of God dwelling with and within his people is throughout the Bible, and emerges in such themes as the tabernacle and temple, baptism and immersion in water, communion and fellowship, and God being his people’s dwelling-place and shelter and refuge and covering (which further relates to him being a Rock and foundation and so on). Plenty to explore!
Another implication of Jesus being given the name Immanuel is that it is an example of how important names are to God. Naming involves describing and understanding. If God himself does this of himself in order to reveal more of himself to us – he who is infinite and beyond categories or limitations – then naming must truly be valuable! God being infinite, we cannot possibly hope to ever know him completely, yet because of his self-revelation we are able to know him truly. This is why we need his word – his written Word , spoken Word, creating Word, living Word.
The incarnation and the taking on of the name Immanuel also implies the closing of a gap, the metaphysical gap between man and God due to the Creator-creature distinction, and the ethical gap (rupture) between sinful humanity and a holy God. We cannot bridge either of these gaps. The first (metaphysical) gap is closed only in Jesus as the one and only God-man. He travelled from his glory in the highest heavens and became human in order to do this, so that he alone can fully represent both parties to each other. And the second (ethical) gap was closed through his subsequent death and resurrection, when he met the righteous requirements of God’s punishment of sin in his own body, and then triumphed over sin and death forever through rising from the dead. Without his initiative and action and perfection we would forever remain stuck, impotent, and under the wrath of God.
Think of soundwaves travelling through the air. When we hear sounds we are the recipients of those vibrations, sensations, sounds in our ears and bodies and minds. Now think of God as the Ultimate Speaker/Musician/Noisician. Jesus is the sound (word) of God, sent by his Father, and the Holy Spirit brings Jesus to us and into us, and he changes us on the inside, in our heart and mind. In this picture, we play the role of listener and recipient in the whole process and experience. A Christian is simply a willing listener and recipients and responder to the divine grace of God, the life-changing presence of God that has come in Jesus. And what an intense joy it is to be on the receiving end of those sounds! But in order to be stirred and transformed those sounds have gotta get pretty extreme, cutting right through our core and shaking our deepest foundations. Harsh noise is my favoured analogy, you might have guessed it!
Finally, the prophetic element. From the passage above: “All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.’” The quote is from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, a prophet of God who wrote these words some 800 years before Christ. Isaiah’s prophecies are jam-packed full of promises about the coming Messiah who was Jesus Christ, and this is just one example. God is the creator of time, he is the planner of time, he is the controller of time, and he himself is outside of time. The time element of this prophetic trajectory illustrates his role as master composer and orchestrator and performer. The fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies in Jesus are profound, far richer and deeper than our furthest imagination. And then there is the impossibility aspect of the virgin birth and the incarnation (God becoming man). Expectations and conventions are defied, suspending belief yet actually generating belief. ‘The Word becoming flesh’ is ‘performance art’ at a whole other level. No mere magician’s trickery, God is truly magnificent and awesome and good and true in all he does, exemplified in the paradoxes of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection.
Some of the reasons that I consider Jesus to be the Ultimate Noisician include:
- “Through him all things were made” – he personally designed the noises of the universe;
- “She will give birth to a son…” – he even planned the very crying noise he would himself make when entering this/his world as a baby;
- “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” – through the incarnation we can witness that his all-encompassing activity (including as a noise-designer/maker/giver) is not distant or abstract, but physical, real, dynamic, and situated in time and space
- “All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said” – as both the giver and fulfiller of all the Old Testament promises, Jesus is the meta-artist, plotting and orchestrating the intricate details and unfolding of history;
- “We have seen his glory” – his word has the power to penetrate, shake, create and destroy in ways that brute noise can only hint at.
Does the incarnation have any practical implications for me as a noise musician? Due to the physical embodiment of God in Jesus, there is a new impetus for pursuing the creative manifestation of truth, i.e. truth manifest in physical forms and contexts. We should expect to be able to uncover new ways to do this (e.g. through noise), because truth in Jesus is both infinite and concrete, both beyond our grasp and within our reach, both grounded in the physicality of our bodies and connected to the perfect glory of heaven through the God-man Jesus. Noise music, just as much as any other artistic pursuit, scientific endeavour, business enterprise, humanitarian initiative, or social activity, has the opportunity and potential to be a conduit of worship of Jesus and a means of service to our fellow people. This is the dream and vision of incarnational art.
Have a noisy Christmas!
He who has ears to hear, let him hear!
I simply had to include here this cover version of Silent Night by Merzbow, the most famous and prolific Japanese noise artist. No silence to be found here!
And here are the full lyrics to the hymn I briefly alluded to above:
1. Let earth and Heaven combine,
Angels and men agree,
To praise in songs divine
The incarnate Deity,
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.
2. He laid His glory by,
He wrapped Him in our clay;
Unmarked by human eye,
The latent Godhead lay;
Infant of days He here became,
And bore the mild Immanuel’s name.
3. See in that infant’s face
The depths of deity,
And labor while ye gaze
To sound the mystery
In vain; ye angels gaze no more,
But fall, and silently adore.
4. Unsearchable the love
That hath the Saviour brought;
The grace is far above
Of men or angels’ thought:
Suffice for us that God, we know,
Our God, is manifest below.
5. He deigns in flesh t’appear,
Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near,
And make us all divine:
And we the life of God shall know,
For God is manifest below.
6. Made perfect first in love,
And sanctified by grace,
We shall from earth remove,
And see His glorious face:
His love shall then be fully showed,
And man shall all be lost in God.
For the director of music. Of David. A psalm.
1 You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
5 You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.