The Christmas tree is lit, the orchestra is come. We assemble with coffee cups and scores, children in tow, worries of the season galore. We are the choir for the Singalong Messiah, a tradition for dwellers of the great worldwide cities.
We arrive in mid-winter, a Saturday afternoon in Saskatoon, to test our voices and temper our souls.
We have lingered long at the parking kiosk. Joy does not mark us this cold day, nor even light-heartedness. We resemble ruffed grouse, stamping our boots, shaking our coats, jingling car keys, juggling cell phones. It is a mark of my determination to participate here that I paid $6 for parking--to be close enough to the church not to perish in my frozen pilgrimage.
And so to the top balcony of Knox United Church. Closer to God, and to the heat.
The stained glass windows are splendid with sunshine. I bask in the multi-hued glow, looking down on the gathering crowd. Old and young, families, singles. The conductor and first violin make their entrance. We applaud, a well-versed if not well-rehearsed crowd. He greets us, our maestro, tests our "stand" and our "sit,"
He tells us there are two human needs as old as humanity itself: the need to create and the need to seek beauty in the world. Create.
As basic as drawing breath.
The opening strains of the revelation are sublime....slow, solemn, swelling with emotion. We must hold back, not spoil the note-- a trot of notes to call us to attention (my eyes have already gone helplessly dewy).
I focus upon the stained glass windows, glowing with kings and courts, wise men and women, Angels in rich colors. And the glory shall be revealed In the lowering light of a Saskatchewan afternoon. Crisp and sub-Arctic, the words are comfort.
Rising, rising now like the peregrine in the wind. The power revealed, how can the tears not come. The colored window splinters into angels. The folds of gowns are too delicate, the shadows of eyes too painful. Hands each, voices lift. The sandaled feet of the saints and the shepherds are so vulnerable.
Tidings, unto the cities, behold the glory of the Lord. The young Tenor steps forward, tips his head in readiness. A modern man, he, half-youth, his collar open (he sports the man-bun). Yet from his lips come the Ages, deep and sonorous. As voice as classical as a sage, unshakeable with faith.
But then, the treacherous semi-tone....
The people that walked in the darkness, we are reminded, they have seen a great light. For the shadow of death is in the windows. Death is in the reclining figures, the extended hand, the face of the Egyptian.
But unto us is born. The Sopranos have found it, caught up hope and lifted the cover of darkness. The Altos draw back the covers smoothly, and the Tenors shake out the folds with authority.
Wonder ful. And his name shall be called.
And now we are skipping and leaping with song, wriggled with uncontained joy. As a breeze swirls, a zephyr, a stream of water, cascades with air and light. We are fairly jiggering with delight. Too soon, too soon.Slow now, slow the heartbeat, be calm.
Calm is in the mournful note that appeals: we dwell upon the earth. The shepherds are in the fields. But lo, the angel. As one, staccato!
The Sopranos on high, and Tenors swoop in, the Altos busily build the layers of sound. Repeat, circle, soar. We are birds of prey. We have majesty. Too soon greatness is gone from sight.
We turn to an easy yoke. His yoke is easy, and his burthen is light... An easy pace, imperceptibly quickens, a lope that is finally checked.
What? Is it intermission?
How flawed we really are: ugly and lovely at once. Mouths with crooked teeth, faces creased with smiles that hide cares. Lipstick happlied hurriedly, coats donned with cat hair clinging. Coffee stained breath, we are the grey-haired and warty. Humanity is a scattering of noise, hopelessly indistinct and unorganized. Ceiling fans reassert themselves, children scamper in the aisles. Water bottles are untapped, singing is a thirsty business. The orchestra has vacated their seats to stretch their legs.
But the oboe sounds, and the strings respond. We gather our thoughts to cello and horn. Our soloists return en masse.
the lamb of God!
The sin of the world--my score reminds me: Pitch! We rise slowly, carefully, the sin of the world a rhythm at our heels. We are demoted a semi-tone to underscore the fall. Even as we raise up our voices we are denounced. Reacquainted with grief, and the sorrows our days, we court rejection and doom.Obediently we are reseated. Dejected we plod. A harpsichord harps mercilessly. We are weakened and fainting. Even the violins at last relent.
But no, changing our minds and our hearts we renew the pace and set to cantering. He hid not his face from shame. Briskly. The strings take up the question. We stand, marshalling our colours. Rally now, and smartly so. Still wincing a little, still a little bruised. But with his stripes we are born.
Raptors reappear, still at the distant. Circling high, they gaze upon us. They spin on the wind, and we like sheep... we bleat, we bleat. Everyone to his own now.
We scatter and roam, climbing foothills of notes, stumbling into the valleys of awkward timing, heads wagging, we have gone astray. Dischordant, flat, octaves in ruins. We have turned, we have turned, the inequity of us all! Now run with that: run and laugh him to scorn. Delight in him, deliver him, Deliver delight--we pound this to pieces, as an impatient child crushes a jawbreaker: words without meaning.
The beautiful Tenor chimes in, lamenting at last: why do the nations so furiously rage together? We shall break the bonds. Halleluiah! All stand!
Stand! The king!!
Even the hair stands on end. For we shall live forever. Tears unleashed, horns blare, drums pound. Forever, Forever,Halleluiah!
How can we ever sit again?
But sit we do, and wait--are we tuning up again? Surely not another intermission. The Messiah is lengthy but we've just got up a head of steam. Our concentration has slipped but a moment, a shiver, a shudder. We recover, breathing hard.
Strings call us: listen. And now a sweet sound: the silver-tongued Soprano, young of tone and firm of purpose. Great in beauty is she with the golden hair, smooth skinned, beautiful. A modest maid yet who could resist her.
Simply she sings, but she is strong, riveting. With graceful wing-beat shebear us aloft. Swiftly, swiftly. She knows her redeemer lives.
She asserts that he shall stand upon the earth, the earth that stretches before heaven, beyond our highest mountains, beyond our imagination. Seas, plains, prairies nights and days are as nothing to eternity. We respond gravely, sensibly. We return to earth from our heady heights. And since by man came death, we are broken again. Again and again.
The resurrection. So in Christ, the eagle. We are adamant about it now, and we will not be cheated. Even as the Tenor admonishes us to behold, for he tells a mystery. Trumpets sound: this is no mere tale. It is crystal clear that the dead are raised by the blare of cold brass. Bold now, and let us be sure: we shall be changed. Be changed.
The Amen. The Amen--Amen--play it on the tongue, over the palate. Let it reach into the braincase, let it tatoo the blood. Amen unrelenting and unremitting until the joyful noise has raised the roof!
Every corner of the church, every heart, every window rattles, We have given up thought, the mind vacates, and we are borne on wings of sound. Feathers curling in wind lifting, nerves ashiver, we are not our mortal selves. No longer made of bones and sinew and breath, we are the windows of God, we are souls united. Our sound has gone out unto the ends of the world!
The concert is over, the lady asks for the programs back. We leave in peace. Mitts are retrieved, cell phones checked, A blast of cold air meets me on the stair. Outside, on the steps of the church, one brave girl dons helmet and face mask and climbs onto her bike. We are ready to resume the mantel of mortality. I shiver as I dash for the truck.
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Judith Wright is a Canadian writer interested in ordinary wisdom, that is, insight gained through everyday experience, shared with the wider world.