Sometimes it seems as if our entire lives are built on ‘waiting’: waiting to grow up, to finish school, to get a job, to get married, to have a baby, to retire... Even our liturgies use the language of waiting: “We wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.” And now we are in Advent, the greatest season of waiting there is.
But waiting can be a pain. We are the most impatient of animals, and as soon as we get what we want, we want something else, something more. Given the difficulty we have in waiting, it is no surprise that patience is described as a virtue — since we all know how tough it is to be virtuous. We recognize the gift of waiting in poetic sayings such as “they also serve, who only stand and wait.” And we decry the interminability of unfulfilled waiting in the metaphor of “waiting for Godot.”
The metaphor of seeds, growing unseen over the winter, is often used as a metaphor for Advent and for our faith in God generally. It’s lovely to think of ourselves as being like the seeds patiently waiting for spring, patiently sleeping through winter’s cold to burst forth with radiant colour in the sunshine of a new season. Surely that’s how we are, the faithful People of God, how we are filled with the promise of summer as we wait for the coming of the kingdom.
Waiting in the warmth of spring or summer is one thing. The languid setting of the sun, the touch of a sultry breeze — waiting can be a pleasant distraction, something to enjoy in itself, or if a pain, more the pain of inconvenience and simple impatience. And some Advents are like that.
But sometimes our Advent reality feels more like a Saskatchewan February, that uniquely prairie version of St. John of the Cross’ dark night of the soul. Bitterly cold, a metaphor not for hope but for fear and despair, frozen to the bone by disappointment, dark days and darker nights with no hope of spring anywhere on the horizon. These are the (Advent) times that try people’s souls, to paraphrase Thomas Paine. These are the times when waiting is truly a pain, times when we wonder if the Messiah will ever come — in our world, but more so, in our hearts.
I was feeling pretty bleak as I worked my way through this less than joy-filled and patient perspective on Advent. But as I thought about it, I remembered something that beloved former Prairie Messenger editor, Rev. Andrew Britz, once said at a lenten mission when I invited him to visit my parish in Winnipeg: that our conversations with God should start with, “I love you, too . . .” in recognition that God loved us first, loved us into being. I started to think about who was really waiting for whom? Is it me who is waiting for the Christ, or is it God, who is waiting for me?
“That’s a noise,” grinned the Grinch, “that I simply MUST hear!” So he paused. And the Grinch put his hand to his ear. And he DID hear a sound rising over the snow. It started in low. Then it started to grow. Is there any more heartfelt moment in all the saccharine Christmas television programming than when “the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day . . .”? Every year, I cry. My own heart swells, and I am impelled to be, for however brief a moment, a “better” me. It’s simply not Christmas if I don’t see the Grinch.
But it’s worth remembering what it was that led to the Grinch’s change of heart.
It was singing. The singing of all the Whos down in Whoville, the tall and the small. And not just sung without gifts, but given the Grinch’s nighttime larceny, sung without instruments or music books either. It was singing that came from the heart and that spoke to the hearts of all who heard it, including that most humbug of characters, the Grinch.
As a singer who has benefited from strong directors and teachers, who has listened to some of the world’s best live or via the Texaco Metropolitan Opera (I know, I’m dating myself), and who has strong tendencies to perfectionism, for herself and for her fellow choristers, this is difficult to accept and internalize. It’s easy for me to tell my music director, with regard to the annual children’s Christmas pageant, “you could burn the building down and they would call it a tour de force,” but for me and for my choir, both my expectations and my fear of judgment are a lot higher.
The trouble is that mostly generates a lot of existential angst and performance anxiety and not much actual improvement. And even if such pain could successfully induce some improvement, few listeners are there because they want to catch you in an error. They’re there because they love the music or they love one of the singers or they love the message and spirit of raising our voices to God in praise, especially at Christmas time. They may not be quite as forgiving as the parents of out-of-tune sheep and angels, or as an all-loving God, but they’re pretty darned forgiving.
So, for all the choristers and directors who will be participating in and for those who will be attending Christmas and Advent concerts in the next few weeks, here’s a reminder: it’s the love on both sides of the music, not the perfection of the notes that will make your concert successful. — Christine Burton
A Saskatchewan soprano, Burton has sung praises to the Lord in Regina, Saskatoon, Winnipeg and now at St. Joe’s in Ottawa, where she is a chorister and cantor at two masses.