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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.

When we were still small, living inRussia, I went to a private, German-based school. The year was 1991, theSoviet Unionhad collapsed, and the hardships of living under no rule were becoming more and more apparent. What we had in terms of food, toys, school supplies seemed enough to us, but it was meager compared to what Western Europeand the rest of the western world enjoyed.

But during the Christmas season we all received a great surprise: our sister school in Germany sent care packages to each of the students in our class. Even now I remember it with giddiness.

It was a medium-sized box that we took home and there, all four of us gathered around it, we peered inside. The bright colors shone out and immediately we saw two small, stuffed animals – a bright, tropical bird and a teddy bear. They were SO vivid, SO soft, SO amazing. I had never seen anything like it. We continued digging, and came upon a large link of salami, several cheeses, candy, bubblegum, colored pencils, pens, notebooks, and Lisa Frank stickers.

I felt joy and thankfulness. To think, someone out there took the time to pack the box, to think of what we might like, what we might need. Maybe the toys were ones that the little girl or boy in Germany liked for themselves? Maybe the Dad or Mom of the family picked out the cheeses at the local dairy shop? There was excitement, giddiness, but no shame for having received this gift. We didn’t feel like we were less fortunate than them. We were just glad.

Many years passed. We moved toAmerica, we grew up, we got jobs, our family expanded. We were now full-fledged members of that affluent first-world.

Another Christmas season rolled along, and at church they announced that they’re starting the Samaritan’s Purse gift program. Curious, I came to check out the gift booth after service, and smiled at what I saw. Those same boxes.

Overwhelmed with memory and gratitude, I picked out several names of children who would now be getting presents from my little family that Christmas. My kids and I went to the store, and judging by the names and ages, tried to imagine what each little girl or boy might like. Now it was we who picked out the toys, colored crayons, markers, miniature cars, colorful shirts and silly socks, bubblegum, stickers.

By the time Christmas came, hundreds of boxes arrived at church, stuffed to the rim with goodies. They were packaged and sent on their way – one of ours went to a little boy in Peru, another to a little girl in Uganda. Reflecting on it now, I feel so lucky to have had the chance to be on both ends of this universal relationship of giving and receiving. I feel joy and thankfulness in seeing how God’s love for us and through us is multiplied and expanded over time.

How fortunate it is to have this little glimpse into His soul.

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