December 18, 2010
On the Seventh Day Before Christmas . . . You'll Just Have to Wait
When I think of the seventh day of Christmas, I think of the seven swans my true love gave to me. And when I think of swans, I think of two things: The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White, which even when I was five years old made me a wee bit weepy; and Seven Swans by Sufjan Stevens, which may be one of the greatest albums ever.
I was turned on to Sufjan Stevens after a chance encounter with his song "Chicago" on the great Chicago radio station WXRT; there I learned of his groundbreaking album Come on Feel the Illinoise, the second in his supposed fifty-state concept effort. He's since abandoned that plan, but I became obsessed with him anyway. I sent an e-mail to his label inviting him to write a book for IVP (he never wrote me back!); I gave Illinoise to everyone I could think of for Christmas; I bought albums by artists he liked; and I snooped around in his backlist. There I found Seven Swans, a more subdued, reflective album than Illinoise (and that's saying something, people).
This year I learned that there's a tribute in the works, with a variety of artists (from Derek Webb and David Crowder to Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Half-Handed Cloud). Proceeds from the album will go to fight breast cancer. Not sure why, but that's the plan. Here's the sticky point: the album won't be out till March 23. It's enough of a letdown to make me think Sufjan had this in mind when he wrote "Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)"
I honestly never thought of Seven Swans as a Christmas album before. I always wondered about the title, but never made the connection. Now I see it: the album is wildly christocentric, with allusions to Old Testament messianic prophecies and beatific visions. I once spent a whole day listening to one track--"Transfiguration," which recounts the time Jesus ascended a mountain with two of his disciples to meet with Moses and Elijah. You can read about that encounter (mine with the music, not Jesus' with the prophets) here. As reasons for the season go, Seven Swans makes a pretty good case.
Since the tribute album won't be out till closer to Easter (which is similarly appropriate, I suppose), I guess we just have to wait--which, seven days before Christmas, technically still Advent, is what we're supposed to do. So on this seventh day before Christmas, maybe preorder the tribute album for someone who needs a fresh encounter with Jesus. Maybe listen to the original all day long. Maybe make time to pray for or visit with someone who's struggling with (or has struggled with) breast cancer. Maybe buy The Trumpet of the Swan for your niece or nephew or daughter or son or grandpa or grandma and read it to her or him. In any case, remember today that while we're preparing for Christmas, we're waiting, always waiting, for Jesus--who's with us, always with us.