Keening for the Dawn: Welcome to Advent

A (beginning) Review of Steve Bell’s new cd, Keening for Dawn: Christmastide (Signpost Music, 2012).

by Brian Walsh

I have a confession.

I hate Christmas music. And it isn’t just the overly jolly Santa Claus stuff that puts me off. No, it is even the Christmas carols when they start showing up in every store that I enter from the middle of October until December 25. Maybe it is the incongruity of these carols showing up in the midst of a consumer frenzy, and maybe it is their close proximity to the secular Christmas songs, but I admit that secular Christmas celebrations have destroyed most of the season for me.

So it should come as no surprise that I generally hate Christmas albums as well. I know, I know, anyone who knows me will immediately bring to mind Bruce Cockburn’s wonderful Christmas album of a few years ago. That was an exception.

Now let me add one more confession. I generally don’t like contemporary Christian music. For me, this is a genre that comes off as too sweet, too pretty, and doesn’t have enough grit to it.

So when Canadian Christian singer/songwriter Steve Bell came out with a Christmas album this year, I knew that this was going to be a hard sell for me. I deeply respect Bell’s artistry. He is a guitarist that should be ranked amongst the best in the country. And his stature as a songwriter has gained him wide respect across this country. He also graciously headlined the show that we had a year ago to launch Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination.

But it was a ‘Christmas’ album that he sent me, and that already had a number of strikes against it. So, to honour the gift, I listened to the whole album in one sitting and was immediately blown away. Or perhaps it would be better to say that a close listen to “Keening for the Dawn” was an experience that I found deeply moving, indeed, deeply healing.

You see, while so much of the ‘music of the season’ is sweet and sentimental, this is an album that takes seriously the longing and pain of the Advent season.

The album opens with “Oracles.” Appropriately enough, Bell leads us into his album with a song that gathers together images and metaphors from Isaiah’s prophecies of the One who is to come.

Oh ancient seer your vision told
Of desert highways streaming home
To the mountain of the Lord
Where nations sound a righteous song forevermore.

Highways streaming home – that is what Advent is all about! A people mourning in exile, a people cut off from their home, a people longing for redemption, a people hoping against hope for the nations to join them in a song of righteousness.

But we are so desperately far from such a homecoming.
We are so painfully far from the dawn of such a day of redemption.
And so the title cut sings of “Keening for the Dawn.”

Keening for the dawn. Do you know what “keening” is? To keen is to mourn, indeed, to wail. Palestinian women weeping and wailing as their dead children are carried overhead on the way to burial are keening. And if we are to enter Advent at all, Bell seems to be saying, then we will need to join them, and to join all others who wail in the face of death.

Keening for the dawn as such
Stirs the memory of your touch
We are waiting

Keening for the dawn is something dramatically different from “looking forward to Christmas” as we get our Christmas shopping all done. Indeed, Bell sings that all of the Christmas hullabaloo must be put in its place by this keening.

Wearied eyes take in the sights
Smarting under tinseled lights
We are waiting

But is there any hope? Is it possible that in the midst of all of this impatient waiting that we might get a glimpse of fulfillment, even through the false glare of the tinseled lights?
Can these Christmas carols that have been so stripped of meaning for me speak anew, even beside the cheap Christmas sentimentality all around us?

Yes, insists, Steve Bell. Why else would he have produced a Christmas album?

Break the too familiar word
Hearing strains we’ve never heard
A double edge that pierces through the pain
All that we shall see fulfilled
The dawning day we see your face again.

And really that’s what the rest of the album accomplishes. Bell opens our ears and our hearts to break through the familiar words so that we might hear strains that we’ve never heard before, that we might see fulfillment, see the face of the Messiah in the dawning day.

Keening for the Dawn might someday become an album that you would put on in the background during the Advent season. But not right away. No, this is an album that invites you to a deeper place, to a more profound spiritual discipline of embracing Advent.

I plan to come back to this album at various times throughout this Advent. So this is just a beginning review. Why don’t you get a copy of the album from Steve’s website and listen along with me.

Keening for the Dawn. Now that is what Advent is all about.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian and the CRC Campus Minister at the University of Toronto. He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is entitled Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination.

8 Responses to “Keening for the Dawn: Welcome to Advent”

  1. Jeff S. Hancock

    Strange how Mr Walsh does not mention how Israel also “keens” for it’s dead.
    Just sayin’.

    Reply
  2. B. Walsh

    That is certainly a fair comment. In fact the word “keens”, as I understand it, is Irish in origin, but I used Palestinian mothers because of the nature of their wailing and because of recent displays in our media. I may be wrong on this, but I don’t know that such public displays of wailing grief is as common in the Israeli population. We also see it amongst Syrian, Pakistani women and others. My point in this post was not a comment on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict per se, but if you discern a bias in my post toward the Palestinian side of this generational conflict, then you would have discerned correctly.

    Reply
  3. btdiprose

    Brian – this was a very well written article, and you were able to put into words some of the thoughts I have about Christmas and Steve’s new album as well. Thank you for an early Christmas gift…

    Reply
  4. Jeff S. Hancock

    Very honorable of you, Mr. Walsh, for replying as you have.
    The media has wagged the dog for a very long time on this issue, and it is integral that those who call themselves “Christian,” see above and beyond the propaganda of the Israel/Arab conflict.

    At risk of going off this thread’s topic, the clarification must be made. Israel is not an “occupying” force. The land has been theirs since the time of King David, and is granted them by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The world recognized Israel as a sovereign nation in 1948, with Jerusalem as it’s capital. (Fulfilling Scriptural Prophecy) The Arab people, (not “Palestinians” Palestine has never been a nation) have always been a nomadic people, and the fact that Israel is surrounded by Muslim countries, (Israel makes up about 2% of the overall population in the middle east) reinforces this truth.

    This being said, the deaths of innocent children on both sides is a travesty, a horrendous and nightmarish thing to behold. But then again, so is the 50 million babies that have been murdered (or culled) in the name of convenience at the hands of women that have been convinced of abortion’s moral relativity.

    There is much more that we, as Christians “keen” over than the things that break a mother’s heart, we keen over that which breaks the Heart of God.

    Great Peace, Blessings and Tidings to you and yours this Christmas.

    Reply
  5. Albert Gedraitis

    Brian, if you don’t go into stores so much, you woudn’t have to hate their music.

    Reply
    • B. Walsh

      Thanks for the comment, Albert.

      Would you believe me if I said that I was speaking out of past memories? Probably not. Truth is, Albert, that my Credit Union is in a mall. And even outside of the mall, the music is ubiquitous. Of course another option would be to become a hermit and stay away all of the time. And this is an honourable tradition as well. Alas, it is not mine.

      Reply
  6. Doug Hynd

    Brian – my copy only just arrived and I have been listening to it letting the words soak in. The lyrics of Refugee are a stunning reflection on the flight into Egypt

    Reply
  7. We are waiting « Empire Remixed

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