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night

This year for the holidays we’re learning a 10-composition-long cantata in our church choir. One of the composition is a medley of Christmas favorites, including the Silent Night. Except in this version, the composers introduced several brilliant and sublime harmonies, which make the Night not quite so peaceful and pastel-colored. The sheep are not perfectly round, the minor, somewhat unresolved chords and counter-melodies seem to be asking more than stating.  The top line of the melody is the same, and the congregation, as they begin to sign along with the choir, won’t know to expect the lyrical hues and the questioning. We, the altos and the male voices will create that vibrancy and depth.

When we first read through the score, half-way through I couldn’t sing any longer, it touched me so. It seemed a more accurate rendition of the mood of so long ago: will this infant, so frail, so vulnerable, really save mankind? Will we be rescued from all of the evils that dwell within us by this little child? Now, hidden in the cocoon of intimacy with his mother, will he one day be called Emmanuel? The overtones make me see him through Mary’s eyes: the endless love of a parent, the awe and the timidity at the miracle of witnessing a new life, of witnessing the birth of the Savior.

Grisha comes up and I try to explain the ingenuity of the composers, to transmit even a bit of why this rendition of Silent Night sends me shivering and unable to hold a steady B. I mention that they are playing with everyone’s expectations, they’re innovators, I try to describe the majors and minors, and he nods – of course he knows all about them. Enthralled in the ancient mystery, I feel a thousand light years away from him. He is an atheist, I am a Christian. How can I possibly send my little beam of feeling across that vast expanse?

Wanting to hold on to the eternal, I aim for the door to the room where I can listen to the recording of the composition. This is a rare moment when I want to feel close to Him rather than him. But, there is a pile of dishes and, succumbing to the inevitable, I stop short and we tackle Sisyphus’ mount together. As I soap up and he brings the remnants from the table, Gri picks up, “You know, there’s an entire school of thought in the Philosophy of Music about major and minor tonalities and about how they’re supposed to make you feel. It turns out, it is not a gut feeling you have from birth – you are trained into reacting to certain sounds a certain way…” Yeah, our reaction to it is imprinted on our collective, western consciousness, I respond. He goes on: “And once you’ve identified that certain way that you’re “supposed” to react, it’s only a matter of time before someone comes along and starts to play with that expectation. And then someone bends the rules further, and still further, until finally you’ve so completely neglected the way things ought, that you’re in a universe of your own. You get someone like Berg…”

Somewhat disgruntled, still, by being stuck washing the dishes while the Divine calls, I retort that I don’t see how this is a unique thought. What other option is there? That’s how all the arts evolve: you get a status quo, then there’s a renegade, then the nouveau is slowly accepted and then it becomes the new traditional. It’s a matter of exploration, Grisha suggests. Innovators in music explore alternative ways that emotions can be superimposed on sounds. Feeling like I am about to sink into the logic the way the spoons and forks are sinking into the pot of watered-down ex-macaroni and cheese, I remain silent. He senses that I am not into a philosophical discussion. I explain, that I, for one, am having trouble fathoming how talks of the philosophy of music can be superimposed onto myself, standing there up to the elbow in cold orange gloop.

He sighs. Well, that is a fair question. Thinking a little, he adds, “But that’s the big question of life, isn’t it: We’re up to our elbows in shit, and we have to rise above it, still have to think about the Beautiful and the Sublime. We have to learn be greater than our circumstances…In a way, that’s what life is all about…”

Save for the clink-clink of the forks and spoons, the evening is quiet. We ruminate on things unsaid. Outside it is night. I am silent, he hums a familiar, Christmas favorite.

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Dear God,

It’s been a while since I wrote.

Thing is, I felt like I couldn’t reach you. Maybe it was the Church that did it. With its zealous campaign to remind us that we are flawed human beings, it overshot its target and made us believe that we were completely hopeless. Some of us, who already had a good sense of our depravity, became convinced that as fallen beings we had no access to you, no place by your side and really, no place even on this Earth. Instead of being empowered we were weakened. At some point we forgot that we were created in your image, and that you created us good.

We began spending many hours of each day in ritual self-flagellation. We beat ourselves up over not being good enough parents, bad church goers, non-tithers, immoral, apathetic, un-praying and uninvolved. Not only could be not talk to you, because, after all, we hadn’t read the Bible in so many days, weeks, months, but we weren’t good enough to go to church either. We had to take action in order to at least somehow justify our existence. So we wrote to-do lists, pushed ourselves to the limit, put ourselves down and promised to do better. This all must have looked ridiculous to you.

Or maybe it was our society. Goodness, what a bunch of health-conscious, environmentally aware confused individuals we are. The world told us to eat better, to drive less, to care for the minorities among us, and instead of joyfully taking it on, we were consumed with guilt – for eating sweets, throwing away plastic cans, driving instead of biking to work, using non-biodegradable materials. There was no joy in anything we did. We were only desperately, without any real hope, trying to make this world a little bit less of a horrible place to live. And us – just a rung higher up on the unending ladder of guilt and social responsibility.

This was your enemy’s work. He took all of the good that might have been intended, and deranged it. The father of lies had prevailed, if only temporarily, at his best craft. We came to believe, I believed, that we had to earn our place; that we had to deserve it. This was impossible, and we floundered around helplessly. This is why I hadn’t written.

But lately I noticed that this idea doesn’t quite jive with what you teach. In fact, it renders the death and resurrection of your Son completely absurd.

So I just wanted to drop you a line, let you know things are getting better. I am allowing myself the joy of not thinking about guilt. You thought of that already. Funny that it took me only 20 years of faith in you to realize this. But that’s OK too. You’re probably smiling right now, maybe even rolling your eyes a bit. But hey, better late than never, and in the grand scheme of things – it’s not late at all.

It’s the perfect time to be finding the child you love.

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