Surprised by joy

Text: Luke 1:57-80 (the birth of John the Baptist)

The joys of Christmas come easily to my mind – things like family meals, expressions of love and affection, child-like delight in trees and candles, gift-giving, music, chocolates. But Advent joy can seem more elusive.

Kim and I experienced an afternoon filled with what I call Advent joy last Saturday when we participated in the Sing-Along Messiah of Edmonton’s BALM Society at Robertson-Wesley United Church. About 300 of us were on hand to sing the choruses of this beloved work by George Frederick Handel.

This is not Edmonton’s first Sing-Along Messiah. A Google search indicated that one used to be held at St. Andrew’s United Church about 10 years ago, and I am sure there have been others. But this was the first Sing-Along Messiah I have participated in since moving out West in 2011, and I loved it.

Throughout the 1990s and the 2,000s I sang in most of the Sing-Along Messiah’s offered by Toronto’s Tafelmusik Orchestra and Choir at Massey Hall. I loved being one of 2,000 people who gathered every December to listen to the solos and to sing the choruses of this two-hour long oratorio.

But last Saturday’s gathering at Robertson-Wesley topped all of them. The spirit seemed bright, perhaps because this was the first offering by the new BALM Society; and perhaps because the Society has a laudable mandate to support the musical leadership and creativity of women and gender minorities. But mostly, I loved the afternoon because the singing was so good.

In Toronto, I came to view the Sing-Along Messiah as an annual rehearsal by a huge group of amateurs. We were enthusiastic, but not very good. We did improve each year, but only marginally. Every year, my brother Andrew and I would scan the bass section to guess who among the men looked like they could sing and then tried to sit close to them. But we often misjudged, and instead of being elevated by the excellence of others, our singing was sometimes dragged down by non-singers around us.

Happily, last Saturday the singers around me were wonderful, and the quality of the choruses, although far from perfection, seemed heavenly to me.

Handel’s Messiah is closely associated with Christmas. But it was first performed at Easter in 1742 in Dublin, and the texts of the solos and choruses, which are all taken from the Bible, span the entire church year from Advent to the Day of Judgement. Only a brief section of the First Part uses texts that are true Christmas ones, from the second chapter of Luke when he writes about angels appearing to shepherds in fields around Bethlehem.

The opening Advent section uses passages from the Hebrew prophets. Words that many of us associate with John the Baptist are not taken from the gospels but from Isaiah. Even the Hallelujah Chorus, which is the best-known chorus from The Messiah, uses words from the book of Revelation and not the gospels.

Since Handel’s oratorio covers the entire church year, it also covers the whole range of emotion from hope to pain, grief, regret, and never-ending joy. When things flow well in a performance, singers lose themselves in the challenge and beauty of the music and in the communal spirit of being part of a chorus.

Singing the Messiah is both a spiritual and a soulful experience; and the soulful elements are not just the comfort and joy for which we yearn at Christmas. They also include hurt at rejection, fear of death, and hope for new life.

I have loved the Messiah ever since I first heard it performed when I was 15; and so I looked forward to last Saturday’s Sing-Along. But I was surprised by the joy I experienced with 300 other people at Robertson-Wesley. Because we tackled this difficult music well and because we were breathing and singing as one, it connected us to Source.

The biblical texts used in The Messiah both charm and annoy me. In the Advent section, I love the image of a refiner’s fire from Malachi and the poetry about darkness and light from Isaiah. But it strikes me as silly to imagine that words written 2500 years ago accurately predict the life of Jesus 500 years later.

I love the Lent and Easter sections of the Messiah, but the texts support a theology to which I do not subscribe.

So, I wondered why I found joy in singing words that are both evocative and sometimes misleading. Thinking of this question brought to my mind a concert that Kim and I sang in as members of Edmonton Metropolitan Chorus on November 18. Called “For All the Saints: Hymns for the Soul,” it included hymns with words that many of us here would not be happy to use on a Sunday morning. But on the day, the concert at First Presbyterian Church was a joy for those of us who sang in it.

Our Music Director, David Garber, set the context. He told the large gathering on November 18 that it was not a Worship service, not a hymn sing, and not a hymn festival. Instead, it was an event.

I think last Saturday’s Sing-Along Messiah was similar. I assume that most of us there were either active in church or had been raised in the church. I also assume that many of us no longer subscribed to ideas about the cosmos and about sin and salvation that were conveyed in the words of the music. Nevertheless, we loved singing it because of the vibrations it created and the connections it strengthened. The fact that the words were from some of the strangest and most poetic sections of the Bible helped to build the spirit of the event and not detract from it.

In this crazy world of woes and blessings, events like this one are sorely needed, I believe. When we gather in the pursuit of beauty, power, and connection, we are fed. When we celebrate and mourn together, we are healed. When we bring masterpieces like the Messiah to life, we are reminded of the pain, passion, and power of the human experience and how this connects us to the Divine.

In talking about the afternoon at Robertson-Wesley with Kim, the phrase Harmonic Convergence came to my mind. Wikipedia reminded me that this was a mass global meditation event organized by New Age thinkers in August 1987 and one based upon dubious astrological thinking. Then as now, I think it was kooky. But there is a part of me that is attracted to the idea of getting millions of people to engage in a simultaneous spiritual practice.

In a way, this is what we do each Sunday when we gather to sing and pray. It is what millions do each December when they congregate in thousands of concert halls all around the world to participate in Sing-Along Messiahs. And it is what we are sometimes moved to do when an awesome event of pain or joy occurs.

When Zechariah regains his voice after 40 weeks of enforced silence he doesn’t complain about his punishment or express anxiety about how he and his wife will be able to raise their miracle child John in their old age. Instead, he joyfully predicts the strange life his son will lead. John’s life is not an easy one; and according to Luke, it ends in his execution. Nevertheless, at John’s birth Zechariah sings words of praise, thanksgiving and joy.

As we continue preparations for Christmas, may we also raise our voices in passionate joy regardless of our thoughts and feelings about the future.

We love the comfort and joy of Christmas, which we will revel in next weekend with the Christmas Singsong on Friday evening, a Sunday morning service focused on Love, and two Christmas Eve services on Monday the 24th. But we live in an Advent world more than a Christmas one, I believe, and so I give thanks for the strange, surprising, and life-giving joys of Advent.

May we find in the communal creation of beauty the spirit we need to thrive in life’s ups and downs and the soulful warmth we need to comfort us during the long and cold nights of December.

May it be so. Amen.

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