Earthly surprises can point us heavenward

By Jim Killam

On January 30, 1969, the Beatles went to the roof of their Apple Corps studio building in London and began to play. In the film shot that day (hard to find online now because of copyrights), people smile and point five stories above when they realize what’s going on. Some climb fire escapes for a better vantage point. This was, after all, the band’s first concert since 1966.

Others walk resolutely, never looking up or acknowledging what’s going on. Some are ticked off because their predictable day has been interrupted. Almost 51 years later, the whole world remembers that concert, how the London police busted it up when the band might have played much longer … and how it turned out to be the Beatles’ last public performance.

Like everything in popular culture, surprise concerts have been so overdone that they usually feel cliché. Subway platforms are particularly popular venues (U2, John Legend, Elton John, Miley Cyrus), along with fans’ wedding (Ed Sheeran) and even a middle school class (Beyonce).

Former Beatle Paul McCartney did one last year with James Corden on The Late Late Show — a program that almost no one really watches but which has an enormous YouTube following. Toward the end of a “Carpool Karaoke” segment, they sneak into a Liverpool pub. When someone puts a coin in the jukebox, the stage curtain opens and Paul starts playing Beatles songs. It’s pretty great.

• • •

So what does any of this have to do with Christmas Eve?

Think about those unsuspecting shepherds outside Bethlehem. On a mundane night on a dark hillside full of smelly sheep, an angel appears with the best news ever reported, and they are scared out of their minds. Then … the glory of heaven breaks out. The angel armies of heaven show up to celebrate.

Were these angels flying? Dancing? Singing? How long did this last? We don’t know. I like to imagine the gospel writer Luke, years later, interviewing Mary about that night. I’m sure he asked what the shepherds told her when they came to the manger. It’s understandable that their attention to detail might have been a little fuzzy … given that they had seen heaven opened in front of them.

I think we are wired for heavenly experiences. Even when we don’t get them, we learn to recognize their echoes, even faint ones, in earthly things — even a pop-up concert. We’re also wired to recognize the heart of God, whether that’s in a story or in our own daily lives. When a bunch of undeserving people receive glorious, unexpected favor … it resonates.

Because that’s our story, too.

• • •

In 1741, George Frideric Handel had just finished writing the Hallelujah Chorus for his oratorio, Messiah. His assistant found him in tears.

“I did think I saw all heaven before me,” Handel said, “and the great God himself seated on his throne, with his company of angels.”

Messiah has traditionally been performed at Christmas, but Handel wrote it for Lent. He also meant it for people you normally wouldn’t see at a high-brow musical performance — or at high church. During Holy Week of 1742, Messiah debuted at a concert hall in Dublin, to raise money to free men from debtors’ prison.

Almost 278 years later, there still is no more glorious piece of music than the Hallelujah Chorus. If Handel were alive today and wanted to preview the glory of God before an unlikely audience, I think he’d like the idea of shoppers eating junk food at a mall.

The video below, from Canada, has been viewed 53 million times since 2010, so chances are you’ve seen it. It’s worth watching again on Christmas Eve. From our limited, earthly vantage point, you’ll glimpse the glory of God breaking into the mundane.

Then let your mind take you to a hillside outside Bethlehem. Of course, go to the manger. But first, linger with those favored shepherds. Imagine what they saw and heard. Imagine God’s delight in showing it to them.

The glory of heaven, on full display, in celebration of God’s gift to us all. One day that curtain will be pulled back for good. For now, even veiled glimpses can fill us with the joy and hope of Christmas.


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