Somehow, back in January 2019, I missed the posting of a video by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Somehow, this morning, in December 2021, I found it.
It’s not a long watch; about three minutes in all. The great cellist performs the unaccompanied Prelude from Johan Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, sitting on a rooftop in New York. Under the light of a partly clouded sky, his back is turned to the city. His cello seems to dance and sing as Bach’s music weaves together a video collage of images sent to Yo-Yo Ma by people across the globe. Each one of the images seeks to represent how human beings express themselves, and how they do so in community. It is a tribute to human life.
There is a painter and a ceramicist and a child playing with a little dog in a park. There are classical and modern dancers. There is a percussionist; a flautist; and a fiddle player. There is a newly married couple; a family on a beach in summer; a paddleboarder; and a carefree little boy on a bicycle.
I realised while watching this remarkable piece of art, described by Elizabeth Davis for Classic FM as ‘the most beautiful thing we’ve ever seen’, that in three minutes of music and moving image it brings together the joys in human life that many of us hold dear: sunshine; health; being together. Creativity; music; beauty; and love.
This year we are increasingly aware that these are gifts that are not to be taken for granted. They are precious, and deserving of our gratitude. For Christians, they are reflections of the ‘life in all its fulness’ found in Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas.
In this season of Advent, we look for Christ’s coming as Light of the World, bringing to us the ‘life and health and peace’ that Charles Wesley wrote of in his great hymn Oh for a Thousand Tongues to Sing:
Jesus! the name that charms our fears,
that bids our sorrows cease,
'tis music in the sinner's ears,
'tis life and health and peace.
This Christmas, perhaps more than ever before, we have learned to treasure our physical and mental health; time spent together; our homes and families; the beauty of the world we live in. And for some, the singing of the choir, and the blend of woodwind and strings, have never been sweeter. One of the highlights for me this season has been joining with musician friends locally and regionally to play and sing. Last year, for many of us, this was not possible.
But music at Christmas points ultimately to Christ, and to the name Jesus, given to Him at His birth. It is a name that ‘bids our sorrows cease’, and with the power to heal our wounds. It is the name of the Child whose came into the world in perfect song, as contemporary composer Will Todd’s beautiful choral text text reminds us. The name Jesus, given at Christmas, speaks salvation and life and beauty and glory, as expressed in the music of Bach, and reflected in the performance of Yo-Yo Ma on that rooftop in New York.
As the words of the Sussex carol explain, the coming of Christ is the reason why ‘On Christmas night all Christians sing’. It is the reason I will be singing. And the music gets stronger as we light each Advent candle. Sounding across our troubled world we hear still the words of St John: ‘the Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.’
So whether you join virtually or in person with friends and family, and as homes are brightened by the glow of a candle or the sound of Christmas music, above all, may you hear His song. May you be comforted with His healing, His joy, by His light and peace.