The violinist Joshua Bell is widely regarded as one of the most accomplished musicians in the world. He’s held positions in the most prestigious symphony orchestras, he’s performed around the globe, released dozens of albums, been featured in major films. He’s one of the great musical artists alive today. Bell also happens to own one of the most valuable musical instruments in the world. It is known as the Gibson Stradivarius, a violin created in the year 1713, a one-of-a-kind musical treasure, valued at about 14 million dollars.
Well, one day in 2007, Joshua Bell went down into the subway in Washington D.C., and began to play music on the platform, as people were coming and going during rush hour. This was an experiment done with some journalists, who positioned themselves nearby and recorded the performance, documenting the reaction of people in the space. It’s very common to have people play music at a subway stop, hoping to earn tips, but it’s also common that commuters walk by without taking much notice. Would it be any different if the musician giving a free concert was one of the most renowned violinists in the world, playing the most extraordinary violin?
Bell played for 45 minutes, and the journalists who reviewed the footage later, confirmed that over a thousand people walked by him during that time. Exactly 20 tossed money into his hat - he walked away with $32.00. It’s not a bad hourly rate, if you’re trying to pay rent, but Joshua Bell had just played a sold out concert in Boston a couple days previously, for which tickets cost a hundred dollars apiece. This show was free, but only seven people out of a thousand stopped to listen to the music, and all but one of those stopped for less than a minute. The person who stopped the longest was a three-year-old boy, who wanted to keep listening, but his parent pulled him away.
It doesn’t surprise me that people walked past the performance without stopping. It was the subway, after all, everyone was on their way somewhere. We all have someplace to get to, and most of us are running late, most of the time. Nobody has five extra minutes on a subway platform. Also, most people don’t know classical music well-enough to recognize a world-class performance. The average person doesn’t know who Joshua Bell is, or why his playing is so special.
There’s a lot of reasons why people wouldn’t take much notice of a great violin performance at train station. There’s always a list of good reasons why we don’t see or recognize or appreciate extraordinary things in our midst. We don’t register the sunset, though it’s majestic beauty is there to behold, every day. We don’t appreciate the privilege of being able to watch our children grow, or marvel at the technology that brings our loved ones to visit. We overlook a lot. We can walk right past a miracle, and not realize we are in the presence of Glory.
Christmas in the USA often feels this way to me. There’s so much going on, there’s so much noise and activity. There’s so much consumerism, so much pressure people feel to meet expectations, so much rushing, coming and going, that we may not even notice the child born in Bethlehem. He is the advent of God’s peace, the divine light, word made flesh.
John 1:1-5 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
The gospel of John says, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” I don’t think words have ever been written more beautifully than that.
But do we see him, on Christmas? There are so many other things to concern ourselves with. And truth be told, the Christ child does not make us take notice. He doesn’t scream for our attention. He’s meek and mild, as on old children’s prayer used to say.
I’ve always groaned at the line from Away in a Manger that says, “Little lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Like, really? He’s a baby who didn’t cry? That’s ridiculous. But in a symbolic sense, I guess it’s true. Baby Jesus doesn’t cry to us. He doesn’t shout above all the other commotion filling up our lives at Christmastime. The Christ child doesn’t insist that we even see him. He’s just a baby, longing for warmth and milk and rest.
The nativity is just a weary father and an exhausted mother cherishing and caring for their precious newborn, surrounded by a bunch of animals. It is a miracle, it is God incarnate, it is life itself, it is the light of the world, but it’s up to us to take notice.
Which does raise the question, why? Why would God enter the world, in a way most people wouldn’t even see or notice? Why come as a baby, born in the middle of nowhere, who can’t even walk or talk or do anything for himself?
Many will say a great violinist is a fool to play music on a subway platform. He belongs on a stage, with lights, with a marquee outside advertising his eminence. He should play for an audience who reveres him, because they understand the value of his craft. What a waste to appear under any other circumstances.
Why would God appear as a baby, penniless and vulnerable, born unseen and unknown, to parents who don’t even have a room to sleep in, and have only swaddling cloths and a manger to give him? Why not appear in power and might, on the Temple mount, with a burst of heavenly radiance, announced by thunder and trumpets, before priests and kings?
Wouldn’t that be more fitting to the Almighty?
That is not how God enters the world. God comes small and humble and vulnerable, and overlooked. Some take notice – the shepherds, who are humble and overlooked, themselves. And those cows and donkeys we see in nativity sets – they are not distracted by a thousand concerns or rushing through a subway station trying to get someplace else. They see him.
For those with eyes to see, and time to see, and curiosity, the light of the world is there, small. Slight, meager. a revelation of God’s everlasting mystery: dialectic, the great reversal, the holy contradiction, the sanctified counter-intuitive. The humble are exalted, the lowly are lifted up; the last are made first. Strength is perfected in weakness, and the true light, which enlightens everything, is tiny. It’s a flicker.
It’s small, and needs to be protected from the wind.
The gospel teaches us to look for the power in small things, and there is power, indeed. I don’t know how they do it, exactly, but I have seen babies bring forth joy from bitter souls and tenderness from hardened hearts. It happens, and it’s power. Sometimes, when all the lights have gone dark, and every bulb and screen and alert has been switched off, the flame of a single candle can allow two people to see each other in a way that was impossible with fixtures and devices gleaming. There is power in small things. I promise it’s true.
In Bethlehem long ago, God arrived small, without spectacle or acclaim. The baby grew up, and over some years gained stature and wisdom, until he was a man, who learned and taught the fierceness of humility, the strength of gentleness and the fire of compassion. The mystery he embodied to the end, was there from the very beginning, in the manger, in the swaddling cloths. It’s the mystery that grace and peace enter softly, and they grow delicately as they recreate the world. In the beginning, this mystery was just a word, but the word was with God, and the word was God. And through this word, all things came to be. Life and light for all people. Light in the darkness, light that cannot be overcome. The light of a baby, the light of a new day.
Merry Christmas, friends.
Pastor Rob Leveridge
The Table is a Christian church in Davenport, Iowa, where people are moving:
from greed toward generosity
from violence toward peacemaking
from isolation toward neighborliness
from fear toward faith