In the mural of the foyer at Old Cabell Hall, a girl gazes out at the viewer. During my undergraduate years I often paused to glance over at her as I hurried to a discussion class or stole a few minutes from bookish humanities courses to rent a piano module. I can’t say she ever noticed.
But on this particular night, she seemed to flash a conspiratorial grin my way. I held two tickets in my hand for that evening’s Charlottesville and University Symphony Orchestra holiday concert, and every blast of cold air issuing from the swinging doors behind me heightened my happy anticipation. My mother had come for a visit, and I had managed to procure the tickets weeks earlier for a surprise gift.
In the years since, I have usually tried to save a little money to do something special when she visits — especially when my father has had to stay behind to work and we miss his presence — and we’ve attended Yuletide teas, a chamber music concert, and small business open houses. But this event stands out in memory, possibly because it was the first time I felt grown-up and cognizant enough of my community to make such plans.
The usher at the door took the stubs in exchange for two programs, and we walked into the semicircular auditorium to find our seats. We chatted as we unbundled ourselves, looking up first at the wreaths adorning the latticed balcony section and then at the School of Athens, framed on either side by softly gleaming rows of organ pipes, as its meditative members bustled about in painted action over the orchestra’s heads.
The musicians finished tuning their instruments. The lights in the room dimmed gradually—including the ones on stage—and within a matter of seconds the entire audience was stilled and sitting in velvet darkness. We could make out only the faint silhouettes of the people around us. I had no idea what was going to happen, but the thrill of that breathless pause was delicious.
The song started from all directions at once. Bell-like and high, mellow and rich, the much-beloved lines of “Stille Nacht” enveloped the audience in a harmony woven by University Singers who stood along the aisles and on the stairs.
I closed my eyes and opened them again, unable to decide which posture lent more sensitivity to my hearing, and found in the end it didn’t matter. The stillness of the moment, the sense of dwelling upon something sacred, soaked in.
When it was over, the auditorium brightened. A torrent of musical merriment followed, ushered in by carols and the partridge in the pear tree with all her motley ménage and the unflagging spiritedness of Conductor Michael Slon at the rostrum. My mother and I marveled; we laughed; we applauded the randomly chosen audience members who sang “five gold rings” with shyness and gusto. To this day, nothing ushers in the cheer and warmth of Christmastide for me the way the music of an orchestra does.
On our way out of Old Cabell, my mural-friend bore the innocent but telltale look of one long practiced in listening with her ear to the inner wall. Steeped in the music of that night, she glowed.
At the time Advent was a season unknown to me, but the hush of that concert’s opening resonated with me in a way that has only grown since. Something of it remained with and anchored me through my newlywed and early motherhood years, so that—as I have shared elsewhere—I usually find myself sitting beside our Christmas tree on a December evening, thinking about the collective unknowingness of “those living in a land of deep darkness” from the prophecy of Isaiah. After four centuries of divine silence, the night at the crux of history was hardly different from any other; Bethlehem bustled and slept, oblivious to the great love arriving at her door to join humanity and fulfill the ancient plans laid for its rescue.
It is right and fitting to acknowledge the sober grief implicit in Christ’s arrival, and this year it’s not difficult to do so; the road from Bethlehem to Calvary seems straight and direct. Andrew Peterson’s “Behold the Lamb of God” connects the two with poignant simplicity:
Wanderers in the wilderness,
O hear a voice is crying,
“Prepare the way, make straight the path
Your King has come to die.”
Once again, the incongruity of death hovering over the newness of birth holds my attention. In Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, a father of a WWII soldier endures the news that his son “was reported missing in action, and remained missing until ‘missing’ slowly came to mean ‘dead.’” One night, he has a dream of his son just as he was at five years old, close and curious at his father’s heels. And the dream feels like everyday reality, with one exception: the father is aware of everything that is going to happen to his little boy.
“He told me this in a voice as steady and even as if it were only another day’s news,” the main character writes, “and then he said, ‘All I could do was hug him and cry.’” I am haunted by a similar feeling when I pass a serene nativity display in our neighborhood. Here is the swaddled Infant in a manger, a long hoped-for delivery. The Master of the universe, come to die.
But if the observance of Advent has better prepared me to acknowledge our somber need for rescue, it has also set me up for surprise. This year, like an amnesiac steeped in worldwide mentions of loss and fear and anxiety, I am genuinely stunned that the angelic host appeared to the shepherds and rejoiced. “I bring you good news of great joy,” said the chief messenger, and it is impossible to imagine these words being spoken in a deadpan tone. They amplify another phrase from a later epistle to me: it was for the “joy that was set before Him” that Christ endured the cross. How easy it is for me to look only as far as the grave!
There is a candid sense of reflection in the sorrows we are each naming and recognizing at the end of this year, and each one feels far more smothering and longer-lasting than the five-minute duration of a Christmas carol. Yet if the claim of the story behind the Incarnation is to be believed, this is but the darkened hour of an opening song.
There is an intake of breath here, the echo of a great tuning. There is the revelation that the birth we celebrate this week was the beginning of a myriad beginnings, a birth that would make possible countless rebirths into the sonship of glory. One voice after another flickers into being even now, adding one layer at a time to this chorus in the dark, in prelude to full-fledged jubilation that no ear has yet beheld.
The grace and majesty of that someday-symphony gleams through the tenderness I have seen many of His men and women and children extend despite family divisions, terminal diseases, and limitations of all kinds, joining their notes to those of a surrounding cloud of witnesses. Through the manner of their living and the continual cultivation of their hope, “they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder. For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them…” (Isaiah 9:3b-4a, NIV UK). Imperfect and quavering, beloved and freed, they are on their way Home.
Here in this night of millennia, there is music I can hear this year better than any other: the joy of Christ’s redeemed, filling this space of waiting with a peerless traveling song.