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Matt Maher and the red cardinal’s gift of joy in a time of grief

Matt Maher and the cover of his album The Advent of Christmas


Tony Rossi - published on 12/04/18

The singer-songwriter discusses his album and children's book "The Advent of Christmas" and the solace he took in the visits of a special bird

In the liner notes of an album, musicians usually thank their colleagues, staff, and family for their talent and support. But on the back cover of Grammy nominee Matt Maher’s new record “The Advent of Christmas,” the singer-songwriter expresses an unusual sentiment of gratitude: “Thanks to the red cardinal that kept showing up during the making of this record.”

That bird helped Maher find solace over a loss that he was still grieving, while also leaving him with a renewed sense of purpose and joy.

Maher is one of the most successful Christian musicians in the industry, with hits that include “Your Grace is Enough” and “Lord, I Need You.”

During a “Christopher Closeup” interview, he recalled feeling that the time was right to record his first Christmas album, which is a wonderful mixture of joyous, sing-along-style celebrations and deeply meaningful, bittersweet reflections on life and faith.

The bittersweet element arose from the fact that Matt lost his father in 2017, so he had to navigate the feeling of sorrow during a season of joy because “Christmas is the one time of year when we take all our best memories from the past and bring them to the present – and evaluate the present [by those standards].”

So what did he learn from the experience?

Maher noted that the nostalgia of Christmas “isn’t just the sentimentality of Hallmark movies and Bing Crosby crooning on our stereo systems…I think it’s homesickness in a way. It’s the one time of year where our souls are reminded of how much we long for God…[The movies and music] are great, but they’re not meant to satisfy the deeper longings of the human heart. Only God and relationships are meant to be meaningful…So [the question] isn’t, ‘Can Christmas drown out all the painful memories [so I can] pretend they don’t exist?’ It’s more, ‘Can we learn to let God reconcile those things so we can miss the ones that we love and experience the bittersweet nature of the season…but also realize the joy that’s found is greater and can still be experienced in the midst of heartache?'”

The album’s closing track “When I Think of Christmas” addresses that heartache in the line, “There are faces I miss, the ones not with us.”

Interestingly, that was one of the two songs for which the red cardinal started showing up. Having grown up in Newfoundland, Maher had never seen many cardinals and kept admiring its beauty. But he also kept wondering why this was happening, so he Googled the words “red cardinal Christian symbolism.”

He recalled, “It said that if you keep seeing a red cardinal, it’s a sign that someone you love is praying for you. And immediately, I thought, ‘Dad!’…My dad loved Christmas…and loved melancholic Christmas songs…He was Irish, and the Irish love a good cry. So as soon as I saw that cardinal, I just knew my dad is praying for me with this record. [It was] a huge encouragement to keep going, to keep doing this.”

In addition to the album, Maher also wrote a children’s book, also titled “The Advent of Christmas.” The idea arose because he treasures reading stories with his kids at bedtime. “That’s how the faith was transmitted for the first couple of hundred years,” he points out. “Just people telling stories. I thought, wouldn’t it be great if I could write a story about Advent…Because kids ask questions. They’re gonna go, ‘What does Advent mean?’ It’s a word that means ‘arrival.’ ‘Who’s arriving?’ Jesus. It’s simple conversations and simple questions. This stuff is supposed to be simple enough that a child can get it. That’s what Jesus said. So to me, the book becomes a way for parents to re-embrace the season like a child.”

Maher also hopes those parents can not only enjoy his album on a musical level, but also rediscover some of the other feelings associated with Christmas, such as hope and peace. Regarding the track “Hope For Everyone,” he notes that many people struggle with feelings of anxiety and quotes someone he once heard say, “If you’re up all night because you’re worried, you know how to meditate; you just need to change the subject.”

Advent, he points out, can move us beyond that anxiety. It’s a season of anticipation in which we’re called to reflect on “the deeper things you’re longing for in life. We celebrate the birth of Jesus at the darkest time of the year. That’s when we choose to celebrate the light of the world….It’s to remind people that it’s okay to have expectation and hope for God to show up in dark times. Because that’s what He was born to do.”

Each of us can reflect that light to others and help make this the world God intended it to be. It’s an idea Maher addresses on the track “Glory (Let There Be Peace).”

He says, “[Regarding] the longing for peace in the world today, it’s not going to start on some ethereal plane and just descend upon everybody. It’s going to start in the individual human hearts asking for it. Every great spiritual moment of renewal in the history of Christianity – it starts with one person.”

(To listen to my full interview with Matt Maher, click on the podcast link):

  1. Matt Maher interview (2018) - Christopher Closeup

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