Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen Wiberg

Sweden, an anomaly in many ways, is a deviation from the rules, especially as seen and experienced by many American visitors. The most common perception many Swedish-Americans carry away with them from visiting relatives or friends in the land of their forebears is that today Sweden has become a thoroughly secular place. This is based on how few attend church—except for baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals. As one wag puts it “hatch, match, and dispatch.”

Having visited a Church of Sweden service on a summer day, the American, whether with sadness, or an anti-Lutheran bias, or an unholy glee reports back home that only five or six attended Hogmassa (high mass). I find it interesting that the “five or six” faithful seem to be the reported number of attendees no matter what parish in the Church of Sweden one might visit. The “five or six” are the ones universally there! You certainly wouldn’t expect any more! So the conclusion is that as a secular welfare state which meets the needs of all its citizens whatever one’s status implies the question: “Who needs God?”

This point of view would be a hard sell during Advent when churches are often full, where the music of the church fills the air, and where the texts of Advent and the Christmas story seem to be what my historian cousin, Chuck Wiberg, describes as being:

…a genuine part of the warp and woof of life (with no worries about separating church and state.) As a deeply rooted part of the historic culture of the place, it is not so much a matter of conscious thought or creedal statement, as simply part of life itself. In our own more individualist culture we tend to forget that at the heart of Christmas—and of the whole Biblical epic—it’s not so much we who embrace God, as if, like everything else, it were our doing. It is God who has embraced us, from the earliest pages of the Old Testament until this day, a fact that, if comprehended at all, can only be with a sense of awe, wonder, and mystery. Somehow in their bones the Swedes have a sense of that.

These reflections come out of eighteen days on the Holiday Lights Tour led this past December by Eloise and LeRoy Nelson together with 58 friends, many of whom we knew from previous tours and others from long-standing friendships, and several new friends as well. Whether in cathedrals or churches, Covenant or Lutheran, or in public places such as the magnificent blue hall of the State House, or in the immense sport’s hall called Globen, we heard magnificent choral music with small and large choirs along with robust Swedish voices of both young and old, singing “Hosianna, David’s Son” and even a Covenant Advent hymn, “O Zion, Acclaim Your Redeemer,” and many other Advent and Christmas hymns and anthems.

We will long remember Anders Andersson singing “Comfort Ye” from The Messiah and “O Helga Natt” (O Holy Night) at Immanuelskyrkan, the Covenant Church in Stockholm, or the glorious concert by a popular jazz saxophonist playing the songs of Advent in the Vaxjö cathedral, or attending the rehearsal of the University Choir of Örebro singing the Hallelujah Chorus in traditional and contemporary renditions, or the three choirs with orchestral accompaniment at the City Hall, or the singing of the children along with the unforgettable boy Joseph in the Rättvik Lutheran Church as they enacted the Christmas story, or the amazingly executed concert in Globen by 1,200 music school students depicting the Light from Haydn’s Creation to the birth of Jesus, climaxed by John Rutter’s thrilling Gloria. And these were only the highlights among other moving musical events.

So the most skeptical might ask of this anomaly: “Where does this outpouring of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs come from?” After three such Holiday Lights Tours in Advent, the only answer I can come up with is this: it must come from something in the yearning soul of Sweden, something like the parable Jesus told of the treasure hidden in the field which lends value to the whole field. It comes from remembering the buried treasure, a legacy that is still alive.

Glen Wiberg (d. 2017), was a Covenant pastor and writer. He was Chairperson of the Covenant Hymnal Commission.

See all articles by Glen Wiberg