by Tony Rossi
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 Matt 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, and one of the few Catholics whose music is embraced by all. 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 Maher lost his father in 2017, so he had to navigate feelings of sorrow during a season of joy. 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.
Joy Amidst Heartache
“Only God and relationships are meant to be meaningful … So [the question] isn’t, ‘Can Christmas drown out all the painful memories?’ It’s more, ‘Can we learn to let God reconcile those things so we can miss the ones that we love … 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 outside the studio. Having grown up in Newfoundland, Maher had never seen many cardinals and kept admiring its beauty. But he also wondered 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.”
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.”
Rossi is the director of communications for The Christophers.