Cute middle school kids filed onto the risers for the inner city charter school’s holiday concert. Boys with hair slicked back, girls with Mom’s bright pink lipstick a bit clumsily applied. Some surveyed the audience, grinned once they located a relative, and waved shyly. High school girls swept in wearing long black concert dresses, followed by boys in tuxes and smart red bow ties.
I peeked inside the program. Christmas favorites–“Adeste Fideles,” “Deck the Halls”–two songs in Hebrew to celebrate Hanukkah, and the Hallelujah Chorus as the finale. But the audience was in for surprises–one surprise for me, and a different one for most of the others.
The students sang a jazzy arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” a lively spiritual urging listeners to “run to the manger,” and a few songs about snow and sleigh rides and bells. The singers kept their eyes on their teachers, following their cues to sing loud or soft. Soloists occasionally broke out of the ranks of their classmates to belt their parts into the microphone and then scurry back to the safety of the group. The audience applauded heartily after each piece.
During “Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light,” I wondered if the students thought much about the words they were singing.
This Child, now weak in infancy,
Our confidence and joy shall be,
The power of Satan breaking,
Our peace eternal making.
Peace and joy. In a world of Syrian refugees, ISIS, climate change, corporate greed, sickness…
Music and learning. In a city of poverty, drugs, homelessness, violence…
I watched the students’ faces and listened to their voices singing about things that were perhaps truer than they know, truer than we all can know right now. Yes, there is still goodness in the world.
For the final piece, the Hallelujah Chorus, all the choirs, a brass quartet, a strings section, and percussion players crowded into the performance space. I got ready to stand, according to tradition, but no one else did. That was odd, I thought, remaining seated as the opening notes began.
I found myself humming the familiar melody.
The kingdom of this world
is become the kingdom of our God
and of His Christ, and of His Christ…
The music reached its crescendo in the last few measures.
And here was my surprise: at the dramatic pause just before the final “Hallelujah!”, the audience began to applaud. The performers continued on to the last two measures, and the applause awkwardly died out. When the song had really ended, the audience burst into renewed applause.
The final notes surprised them, I realized.
They didn’t know this magnificent song wasn’t over yet. They didn’t know this song, a song I’ve heard and sung dozens, perhaps hundreds of times.
But of course they didn’t know it. Some of these families may have had little or no exposure to classical music, let alone church.
“How can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’“
So let us preach–and sing–of this good news of the kingdom of God. That kingdom has indeed come in Christ and is even now spreading His peace and joy throughout the world.
And let us wait in that pause, that great silence before the final notes, for the completion of that kingdom. Let us then join with all the cosmos to say,
I think we will all be surprised at the glorious sound of it.