Not Just Another Christmas

Joshua Bell is a world renowned, Grammy award-winning violinist...

Dave Gobbett | 21:41, 25 November 2020

Classicmusic [Public domain], from Wikimedia CommonsA few years ago, The Washington Post conducted an experiment.

... world-renowned, Grammy Award-winning violinist, Joshua Bell

It involved the world-renowned, Grammy Award-winning violinist, Joshua Bell. Bell had entranced audiences in concert halls all over the world. People paid hundreds of dollars to watch him play on his $3.5 million Stradivarius violin. He’s a virtuoso in his field and a total genius.

Yet one January morning, The Washington Post invited Mr Bell to exchange his white tie and tails for blue jeans and a baseball cap, swap the bright lights of the stage for a dirty Washington DC subway station, and busk some of music’s most notoriously difficult pieces right there at the entrance.

The Washington Post called it “a test of people’s perceptions and priorities”. Would people perceive the presence of greatness? Would they prioritise stopping to listen?

Short answers: no and no.

You can watch the video on YouTube (after the advert). Over the course of 40minutes, amid the hundreds of people passing by, just seven paused to listen, and only one person recognised him. Three days previously Bell had played the same pieces at a sell-out concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall, where people had paid as much as $100 a ticket. That morning outside the metro, he collected just $32.

“It was a strange feeling that people were ignoring me.”

Joshua Bell reflected on the experience afterward: “It was a strange feeling that people were ignoring me.” So how did hundreds of people walk past the presence of greatness without even realising it? Probably because, if you’ve done the same journey on public transport every day for years, you don’t expect a world-class musician to entertain you at the station. You expect the guy with the violin to be just another busker, or you zone out the sound altogether. And so you walk on by, totally oblivious to what you’re missing out on.

Can you imagine how you’d feel if you got home and saw on the news that someone famous had been where you were that day? What if you even saw yourself walking by on the footage?

Dean Beeler, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia CommonsI love the story about Joshua Bell because it reminds us that when we’re not expecting something, we can often miss it. There’s a saying that “familiarity breeds contempt”—or at the very least, complacency. The familiarity of a situation, or of a place, or of a time, can cause you to disregard the thing in front of you because you can’t see that it’s valuable. You just walk byon autopilot. We do it all the time (but of course, we don’t even realise it).

It’s possible for something similar to happen with Christmas.

After all, we’ve travelled along these festive paths so often, year after year. It’s just another Christmas. We know what to expect: the lights, the sparkles, the ads, the decorations, the feasting, the presents, the tree, the traditions, the Christmas parties, the Christmas movies, with the music of Mariah Carey and Michael Bublé playing on loop in every shop from here to the North Pole…

it’s possible to be so dulled by those familiar things that we walk past the main act in Christmas

All that stuff is great (well, almost all of it—you might be more of a “Joshua Bell” than a “Mariah Carey” kind of person). But like a commuter who is determined to catch their train, if we’re powering towards 25th December it’s possible to be so dulled by those familiar things that we walk past the main act in Christmas: Jesus.

We “zone out” to the “Christ” bit of Christmas, who often gets left behind in all the wrapping paper and the trimmings. But if we do that, we miss out on something incredible right in front of us. Here’s what the Bible says was happening at that first Christmas. This isn’t “just another” anything:

“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.”
(The Gospel of John, chapter 1, verse 14)

In those two short sentences the writer, John, makes three massive claims that get to the heart of Christmas. Don’t rush past them—stop, listen and enjoy the music.

At Highfields Church we're committed to spreading a passion for Jesus. Like fans of a great maestro, who society has passed by, we long for all our friends and neighbours to get to know the Christmas baby, and listen to his captivating, life-transforming message. We'd be delighted to welcome you to one of our carol services!

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