I Need an Advent Calendar this Year

I think I might need an Advent calendar this year. Not those lovely ones made for adults that hold tiny bits of chocolate or miniscule bottles of wine behind each door. I mean the old-fashioned kind, with doors opening to reveal a simple toy or Christmas decoration printed on tissue thin paper—the ones that don’t provide a tangible reward for getting through another day. The kind with beautiful snow scenes showing rosy-cheeked children gathered around the village Christmas tree or manger scene.

When I was a child, Advent calendars taught me patience and the value of waiting. Now that I’m many years a grown-up, I need to be reminded of those lessons. This has been a hard year of waiting. Waiting for our political issues to resolve, waiting for relief from the terrible scourge of this virus and as the holidays approach, waiting for the time when we can once again gather with beloved family and friends to celebrate and break bread together.

This year’s holiday season looms like one long Advent. In order to be safe, we must keep our lamps lit to prepare for the coming of better times and they will come, but not as quickly as we would like. But for now, we have to rely on opening doors to the simplest pleasures—an outdoor visit with old friends on a balmy November day. An unexpected gift of freshly baked bread from neighbors we barely know. A new appreciation for having fewer places to go, although I long for the days when we can once again roam freely without fear of infecting ourselves and others.

I will cook a small Thanksgiving dinner this week, we’ll deliver it to a relative who lives nearby and then all eat together via Zoom. There will still be the smell of roasting turkey and grace said and conversation at our respective tables. We will still decorate for Christmas in our usual over-the-top way even if no one sees it except us and the pets and the neighbors. We will surround ourselves with beautiful Christmas music although the day I can once again put on choir vestments or concert attire and sing with others will be one of pure joy. We will still celebrate Christ’s birth although this year it will be from our living room in front of the TV instead of in a packed candlelit church.

I see all of these little scraps of normalcy as gifts hidden behind the Advent calendar doors. They’re just pictures and reminders of the real thing, but they are enough to get us through and give us hope. I still think I want a calendar this year, though, because every time I open a door, it feels like progress toward something better.

A Perspective on the Demise of Midnight Mass

I realize I’m a curmudgeonly dinosaur, but I miss late-night church on Christmas Eve. I know, I know, everyone’s exhausted and has obligations the next day, and no one wants to come out at that hour anymore, but I still miss it.

I was about seven when my parents decided I was old enough to go to midnight mass with them on Christmas Eve, and I could barely contain my excitement. After the starkness of Advent, I was awestruck walking into the candlelit church, bedecked with garlands of real pine and laurel and with banks of brilliant poinsettias filling the chancel. That child-like joy has remained with me over the years, and I don’t think I have missed a Christmas Eve late service ever since.

There is something about going to church in the middle of the night that makes the mystery of Christ’s birth all the more meaningful. Once a year, we make the effort to say this is special, this is a wondrous event that pulls us out of the realm of the mundane. In the church where I grew up, at the stroke of midnight, the service paused as the baby Jesus was gently placed in the manger. To me, that was Christmas, and everything else was just window-dressing.

But like so many things in mainline churches, all has changed in an effort to keep getting those elusive bodies into the pews. I suspect God doesn’t care when you worship, and it’s better to be practical and offer services when people are willing to come. The first time I attended the midnight service in my current church, the ushers wore tuxes. Now, sadly, we struggle to get enough ushers to volunteer. After years of decreasing attendance at the late service and threats of mutiny amongst the choir members, the decision was made to move the service earlier, and it looks like that will stand for the foreseeable future.

Last year, we fulfilled our commitments at our home church and then attended a midnight service in a nearby town. The sanctuary was filled to capacity and it was a glorious celebration. I shed a few tears for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it just felt so good and so much like the Christmases I knew growing up. When we looked at church websites to find a late service for this year, there were few listed, so I’m not sure if we’ll get to one or not.

In the meantime, my husband and I have been rehearsing with the choir of a church where a friend and former teaching colleague is the director. We’re helping to sing their cantata because it might be the last time I get to do this. My friend is fighting a deadly form of cancer and he’s tired and the treatment has taken its toll. I’m there partly because I want to sing and partly in case he needs a back-up conductor.  He’s still very much himself, though, full of snarky remarks and loving his music schmaltzy and over-the-top. But as we sang Dan Forrest’s gorgeous arrangement of Silent Night, and I watched my friend’s face glow with pride and emotion, I thought this cantata service may well be my midnight mass this year–a wondrous event that pulls us out of the realm of the mundane. Everything else is just window-dressing.

St. John's star

 

 

 

To Those of You in the Back Pew…

            There have been more of you recently sitting there in the back pew or along the sparsely populated sides. You look a little nervous, a little uncomfortable. You’re young–maybe in your 30’s, maybe you have a small child or two with you. You’re not sure if this is the right place, but you’re seeking. Something. Maybe you don’t even know what that is yet. Or now that you have children, you need a place for them to learn about God. You’ve passed this lovely old church many times on your way to the farmer’s market or a restaurant and thought to yourself, “Why not give this one a try?”

            The people at the door are dressed up but they welcome you warmly. Worship is more formal than what you may be used to or perhaps you’re not used to a church at all. The service starts and ends with a sort of parade with someone carrying a big cross and kids carrying candles and a book covered in gold. There are no screens or electronic instruments, but there is beautiful organ music and a choir that sings well. The service involves a lot of standing up and sitting down and even kneeling. Everyone around you seems to know what to do, and you may feel a little lost at times. But the pastor in the colorful robe is friendly and preaches a wonderful sermon and people shake your hand and ask your name and your children’s names and invite you for coffee and cookies afterwards. You walk up to take communion and watch what everyone else does so you don’t make a fool of yourself at the rail. Many of the attendees are older but there’s a smattering of young families and a teen-aged boy in the choir and something about this place feels ok, if a little intimidating.

            Let me tell you something. I was one of you once. I sat here alone in a side pew for the first time 25 years ago when I was at a low point in my life. Although I knew the service, I didn’t know a single soul until a lady named Zoe swept by and invited me to join the choir. My life hasn’t been the same since. These are My People. This is a good place to be.  A place to heal, to learn, to become a more whole person. To find a way to better serve God and those around you. Whatever you need, you can find it here. Let this church be as one of our members recently put it, your “Oasis of beauty in a dark and troubling world.”

            We are the artisanal denomination, the farm-to-table church. We believe that there is still value in some of the old ways. That gracious and reverent worship using beautiful language and beautiful music is ok. That for one hour a week, we can set aside our constant need for screen time and self-gratification and be still and know that He/She is God. And if my observations are correct, there seems to be an increasing hunger, especially among those of you who are young, for calm, meaningful and yes, liturgical worship. The comfort of a quiet, candlelit sanctuary and the rhythm of familiar prayers temporarily erase all the shouting in the world. There is powerful sustenance in the weekly meal of bread and wine. There is peace and hope and as our wonderful leader has recently been broadcasting from the rooftops, there is love here. For all.

            So, to those of you in the back pew who are tiptoeing hesitantly into the waters of worship, keep coming back. I know, all this rigmarole in a church service takes some getting used to (ask my husband) and we may be a tad formal compared to the big suburban churches but give us some time. There is a Zoe, an angel, here for every one of you. Who will help you find what you are seeking. This is a good place to be.  

             

Sacred Service

I’ve spent a lot of time recently learning Hebrew. Well, not really learning it, but learning how to pronounce it. The clunky consonants, unusual vowel pronunciations and that “ch” sound that feels like scraping a piece of paper across the roof of your mouth have caused me to develop a whole new respect for our Jewish brothers and sisters who speak Hebrew fluently for their bar- and bat-mitzvahs. Even the word amen is pronounced differently. “Ah-Main” instead of “Ah-Men.”

The chorale that I sing with is preparing a performance of Ernest Bloch’s “Sacred Service,” written in the early 1930’s and described on the title page as “A Sabbath Morning Service according to the Union Prayer Book.” I think all of us were intimidated by a score of 90-plus pages of Hebrew, very little of which is repetitive, not to mention the fact that the music is rhythmically complex and just plain difficult. I sit with my laptop listening to a downloaded file that goes through the music phrase-by-phrase, first pronouncing the words slowly and distinctly, followed by a sung rendition from a somewhat wobbly-voiced quartet. Kind of like Rosetta Stone for Hebrew.

hebrew-105435_1280

I’ve sung a lot of sacred works – masses and requiems and glorias, the great Bach “B Minor Mass” and “Christmas Oratorio” and of course, the “Messiah,” all of which have biblical texts but heavily slanted toward the New Testament. This is the first time I have ever sung music intended for, in the composer’s own words, “the congregation of the Children of Israel.”

It is heart-wrenchingly beautiful, holy music. A solo baritone cantor, requiring a truly virtuosic singer, soars above the orchestra and is interwoven with the choral parts throughout the entire work. The texts are powerful hymns of praise to God and interestingly, the translations not unfamiliar words— “We adore Thee and worship Thee, and we bow the head before Thee.” “He the King of the Kings of Kings.” “For all things in heav’n and earth are Thine.”

Ernst Bloch

Bloch, like us, knew no Hebrew when he was commissioned to compose the piece but according to program notes, “embarked upon intense study of the text” and intended to express “not only the literal meanings of the Hebrew words but their widest possible connotations.” He even insisted that one movement always be sung in the native language of the country where it was being performed to make sure the audience understood the message. He chose not to just skim the surface of the text, but present it in all its depth and complexity, and it is our job as choral musicians to do the same thing. We have our work cut out for us.

We spend hours of rehearsal time, grinding through the music, sometimes note-by-note, singing sections at painfully slow tempos just to get some grasp of the rhythm. We gather in small groups to sing excerpts as our director circulates through the room listening for wrong notes and hesitant Hebrew. We stand in circles so that we can watch and listen to each other, gleaning help from another singer when we falter and smiling with our eyes when we make it through a difficult passage without a mistake.

In mid-April, a combined choir of 120 voices will sing the “Sacred Service” accompanied by a world-class regional orchestra. Many of the choir members are local college students for whom this may be their first exposure to music, or anything else, representing the Jewish faith. That’s probably true for most of us adult singers as well. The orchestra conductor himself is Jewish, and I suspect the opportunity for him to present this magnificent work goes way beyond artistic interpretation of notes on the page.

We frequently hear about the power of music and its ability heal a troubled world, to help us figure out a way to talk to each other and more importantly, how to listen to each other. One of the articles I read about Bloch mentioned that he announced at the tender age of nine, “I would compose music that would bring peace and happiness to mankind!” If only it were that simple.

I must get back to practicing since I am still struggling with the fifth movement. I want to learn this to the best of my abilities. I owe that to the chorale, the music directors, the audience. I owe that to the faithful people for whom this work is their “Messiah,” their Vivaldi “Gloria.”  And, to be honest, it’s kind of cool to learn a foreign language and a different way of praising God from a piece of music.

There is something to be said for immersing oneself in new learning, not only to preserve artistic integrity but to respect another culture or religious tradition. It would be a travesty for the “Sacred Service” to be performed in English, and yes, it’s hard work to learn the Hebrew, but that effort places us in the temple, shoulder to shoulder and voice to voice with our Jewish brethren, all worshipping God together. We develop the skills we need to sing with those who may be different from us rather than standing in the corner with crossed arms and an angry face, steadfastly refusing to learn a new song.

 Jewish worship