This was the title of my Christmas Eve sermon this year: “Bing, Bowie, and a Baby in a Manger.” Allow me to explain.
Back in the 1970’s, I spent a good portion of my December watching all of the Christmas specials that the three major networks televised throughout the season. There were the children’s Christmas specials: Rudolph, Frosty, the Grinch, and Charlie Brown. Everyone knows about those. But there were also the family Christmas specials that were hosted by a variety of celebrities.
If you are not old enough to have experienced the 1970’s, this may be a bit difficult for you to understand. But the cultural and social climate of the 1970s created an environment that made it possible for nearly half of the celebrities in Hollywood to host a televised Christmas special. For example, on December 8th, NBC might televise the “Dean Martin Christmas Special,” featuring special guests Sammy Davis Jr. and Raquel Welch. On December 12th, ABC might televise the “Perry Como Christmas Special,” featuring special guests Jim Nabors and Rosemary Clooney. On December 16th, CBS might televise the “Andy Williams Christmas Special,” featuring special guests Lena Horne and the Osmond Brothers.
Bob Hope hosted a Christmas special. So did Johnny Cash. So did John Denver. So did Sonny and Cher. My goodness, back in 1978, even R2D2 and C3P0 hosted their very own Christmas special! These Christmas specials were all about the same. There were Christmas songs, performed amidst holiday settings, that were as colorful as they were cheesy. There were holiday skits that were maudlin enough to tug at the audience’s vulnerable heartstrings. And normally, every special concluded with the host and all of the guests singing one of the “night songs”—either “Silent Night,” or “O Holy Night,” thereby bringing the entire production to a poignant closure.
The king of the celebrity Christmas specials was none other than Bing Crosby. In the 1960’s and 70’s, Bing Crosby hosted 15 Christmas specials, the last of which was televised in 1977, shortly after Bing’s death. The most noteworthy thing about Bing Crosby’s final Christmas special is that it featured a guest appearance by David Bowie, the eccentric and somewhat androgynous rock star who was at the height of his popularity in 1977. Bowie’s appearance on Bing’s Christmas special was no doubt an intentional effort on the part of network executives to bridge the cultural and generational gaps that were developing between older and younger members of the television audience.
The most remembered segment of that 1977 Christmas special was a duet between Bing Crosby and David Bowie. The duet was preceded by a carefully choreographed skit that went something like this: The doorbell rings. Bing Crosby answers it, only to find David Bowie at his door. David Bowie explains that he’s a neighbor living down the road and that he needs a piano so that he can practice his music. Bing Crosby invites David Bowie into the house, they exchange pleasant conversation about their families and the celebration of Christmas, then they make their way over to the piano, upon which happens to be a lovely Christmas duet: Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth. They sing it together.
It was a significant moment of television history that many people continue to describe as the bridging of a chasm that had never before been bridged—specifically, the chasm between the world of the classic crooners and the world of rock and roll. Bing represented the big band era. Bowie represented loud guitars, crashing drums, and cryptic lyrics. Bing represented cardigan sweaters. Bowie represented tight pants and make-up. Bing represented “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas.” Bowie represented “Ground Control to Major Tom.” Bing and Bowie, in other words, represented two entirely different worlds that were so different from one another and so often alienated from one another that it had come to be believed that there could be no common ground between them.
And yet, in a simple moment of Christmas music, the worlds of Bing and Bowie intersected in a way that was as significant as it was poignant. A simple Christmas duet became a cultural bridge between two worlds that were thought to be irreconcilable.
Perhaps part of the reason why Bing and Bowie’s duet is on my heart at Christmastime is that I find it to be a good metaphor for the kind of bridge-building that took place on that first Christmas night, 2000 years ago. I say that because, when we dare to look beneath all of the romanticized notions that we might have of the Christmas event, when we dare to travel beyond our sanitized nativity sets and our comfortable Christmas carols, what we find in the Christmas story is a God who brought together two worlds that were thought to be irreconcilable. Think about it this way: Bing and Bowie bridged the alienated worlds of crooners and rock and roll stars with a single duet. Far more impressive, however, is the way in which the God of the Ages bridged the alienated worlds of divinity and humanity with the birth of a single child.
That, after all, is the mind-boggling good news of the Christmas story, isn’t it? Somehow—and that word “somehow” is the right vocabulary to employ here, if we are going to maintain an appropriate sense of wonderment—somehow, in the mystery of gracious divinity, the God of the Ages traveled from eternity to the present moment; somehow, the God of the ages traveled from a heavenly throne to a Bethlehem manger; somehow, the God of the Ages traveled from divine accoutrements to human skin.
Why? Why would God make that kind of trip? Well, that question is answered in a single verse of Scripture, a verse that many Christians memorize when they are very young: “For God so LOVED the world, that he gave his only Son.”
Why would God make the trip from divine accoutrements to human skin? Scripture would have us to believe that God made the trip Because God loves us that much. “In fact,” God proclaims “I love you so much that I am willing to become the bridge. I am willing to come to you in Christ, because I know that you cannot come to me. And I refuse to allow your sin to keep us apart. I refuse to allow the alienation of your disobedience to prevent us from being in right relationship. Therefore, I will become flesh, thereby bridging the chasm between us that you on your own are not able to bridge.”
Back in 1977, Bing and Bowie built a bridge between alienated musical worlds by singing an unexpected duet. 2000 years ago, the God of the Ages built an infinitely more significant bridge between divinity and humanity by wrapping himself up in human flesh, thereby making possible a redemptive duet of salvation, sung by both the angels of heaven and the children of earth. I’m still celebrating that good news as I make ready to enter into a new calendar year.