In 1993, F.H. Rauscher, G.L. Shaw, and K.N. Ky, three researchers from the University of California, published an article in Nature magazine titled "Music and Spatial Task Performance." In it, these researchers found that children who listened to a sonata by Mozart had significantly increased spatial intelligence scores. That is, they were better able visualize spatial patterns and mentally manipulate them to solve problems.
In their experiment, Rauscher and his colleagues administered one of three standardized tests to children after they had listened to a sonata by Mozart, a piece of repetitive relaxation music, and a time of simple silence. The researchers found that the participants scored 8 to 9 IQ points higher after listening to Mozart over and against the relaxation music or the silence. The results of this study popularly became known as "the Mozart effect" and claims like, "Mozart makes you smarter" and, "Mozart helps your kids grow" spread like wildfire.
Although the findings and significance of this study have been severely misrepresented and overblown, I can't help but think that maybe John the Baptist and Jesus listened to some really good music growing up after reading Luke 2.
Our reading for today is one of the most beloved in all Scriptures. An inn, a manger, shepherds, and angels mean that we can be nowhere else but Christmas. And yet, as charming as the story of Jesus' birth may be, it's the story of Jesus' growth that really captivated me when I read this familiar chapter once again.
Luke 1 ends with these words concerning Jesus' cousin John the Baptist: "And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel" (Luke 1:80). Interestingly, John's growth spurt comes on the heels of a song sung to him by his father Zechariah:
You, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. (Luke 1:76-79)
Then, with a masterful parallelism only Luke can muster, we read these words in Luke 2 concerning John the Baptist's cousin Jesus: "The child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him" (verse 40). When does Jesus experience his growth spurt? After a good song, of course. When Jesus is at the temple to be dedicated to the Lord according to the Old Testament law, a man named Simeon sings these words to him:
Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel. (verse 29-32)
Both John and Jesus, it seems, experienced the Mozart effect before there was even a Mozart. Music inaugurates their ministries.
The Christian church has long celebrated the value of a good song. Not so much because we believe it carries some mystical power in and of itself to make us grow smarter, but because a good song with good lyrics about Jesus can help us grow in our faith. Words like "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound" and "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty" and, in a nod to our reading from Luke 2, "Silent night, holy night" buoy our trust in God like few other things can. They help us grow and become strong in our faith. So today, sing a song to Jesus. It doesn't even have to be a piece by Mozart. After all, when it comes to strengthening our faith in Jesus, any faithful song is a marvelous choice.