I spent Monday night and Tuesday morning in rehearsals for the upcoming Boston Pops holiday concerts at Symphony Hall (my performance schedule: 12/12 4 PM and 8 PM; 12/14 7 PM; 12/20 11 AM and 3 PM; 12/23 8 PM; 12/27 8 PM), marinating in the secular version of the holiday. It’s always a colorful but thin broth: reindeer and snowmen, with the occasional “Hallelujah Chorus” bobbing by to provide sustinance. This season we add a new arrangement of music from “Polar Express,” the culmination of which is a pop ballad exhorting us to “believe.” In what, it’s not quite clear: the train? Santa Claus?
Last week, a crack was found in the wall of Old South Church, a long standing Boston institution that is quite clear about what it believes and is growing as it continues to celebrate the inclusion of all God’s children, not just the straight ones, in God’s kingdom. The crack, potentially a disaster for the church, has been made an opportunity for reflection on the potential for cracks in any institution or relationship and for thanksgiving for the wisdom of the church’s leadership in ensuring that the MBTA and their contractor, not the church’s insurance, must pay in the event of damage. And yet, there it stands, an irrefutable proof of movements deep below that may at any moment cause a fundamental shift in our world.
That shift, that crack in time, is what pulses through the best of Messiaen’s work, his pieces for solo organ (Le banquet céleste, Apparition de l’église éternelle, L’Ascension, La Nativité du Seigneur, Livre du Saint Sacrement) and a solitary choral motet O sacrum convivium! For Messiaen Christmas is something entirely different: a meditation, an epiphany, on a fundamental shift in the world. Hearing Messiaen in a candlelit sanctuary awaiting an 11 PM Christmas Eve service, the apparition of the eternal church sinking into my blood and bones as the organ opened the doors to the miracle: a transformation out of history that continues to transform us two thousand years later.
(Update: As always, Nancy Taylor’s sermon the Sunday after the discovery of the crack is insightful, and echoes some of my own thoughts in a more coherent manner.)