I drove over an hour just before Christmas to hear Handel’s Messiah. I grew up listening to it on Christmas Eve after bedtime, as my parents brought our gifts down from the high loft in their bedroom and arranged them under the gargantuan bull-pine we’d carried in from some subarctic marsh or another. As a child I thought the nearly two-hour oratorio was one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’d ever heard. I was a young adult before I realized I could listen to it all year ’round. And I did.
The first time I saw the whole thing live was a frigid night in Washington, D.C. I was in my early twenties and didn’t own a car. I rode a Metro and then a bus and then walked for almost an hour, uphill, to get to National Cathedral. A stone pier separated me from most of the choir. I spent a lot of time worrying about how to get home without freezing. But the music sounded better than it did on my Walkman.
Flash forward to a rainy afternoon in east Phoenix, to a large and relatively new church designed, I believe, for acoustics. I was embarrassed at the tears that sprang to my eyes during the overture. It was almost unbearably beautiful. I’d been the last to arrive at the sold-out performance, and my seat was a padded folding chair against the back wall. In front of me, in the last pew, was a family of five, a mother, father, and three little boys whose ages must have ranged from two to six. The youngest fell asleep almost immediately on his father’s lap, then slept until nearly the end in his mother’s arms. When the hand-off took place, she stared into her son’s tranquil face for about twenty seconds, touched her lips to his forehead for another twenty. When the choir sang “For unto us, a child is born…Unto us, a son is given…,” the dad turned his head and gave his wife a conspiratorial grin, as if those lines had been written just for them.
They had been. My beliefs in the realm of spirituality run more to the Buddhist and Shinto end of the spectrum, and I tend to consider the idea of a god that thinks at all like a human to be not only arrogant but insulting (for the god) but I find it wonderful that the Christian story is couched in a tale of a holy infant. And of rebirth in the face of death. Humanity’s faults lie not in the infants, but in the men and women they become.The infant is mankind’s link to peace and hope and the everlasting. Our perpetual failure, as a species, to attain the first does not deter us from keeping the second or achieving the third.
My own body had to undergo the chemical metamorphosis triggered by giving birth in order for my brain to understand the holiness of the infant, the power of that holiness, and humanity’s need to worship it. Becoming a mother gave me a chemical connection to the power, to the glory–a mainline to the everlasting.
During the Hallelujah chorus, the six-year-old stood on the pew in front of me, bopping his head in time to the music just as I felt myself doing. In the pause between the second-to-last “hallelujah” and the last one, he let out a soft fart. Both hands grabbed the seat of his pants and he whipped his head around in alarm for the paternal reaction. His dad shot him a conspiratorial grin. He grinned self-consciously back.
So easily the sacred becomes the profane. The two shift and change places before our eyes; to remind us of the sacred that’s often as elusive as if it were writ in infrared, we tell a story. We sing a song.