Friday, December 24, 2010

O Come All Ye Faithful

Most religions develop a liturgical calendar. Liturgical calendars are basically a cyclical journey through a year that creates a ritual scenario in which to experience the major emotions that we tend to feel in life in a controlled setting. The purpose of having a liturgical calendar is to practice for these real life events. When we "cry out" in anguish, the spiritual leader reassures us that our pain has a purpose and that God is in control. When we "shout" Hallelujah, we are accompanied by brass instruments playing in a major key. We confess both our own sins and the sins of our community and a shofar is blown to reinforce both it's importance and it's forgiveness. We "gather in" the harvest and are led to give thanks for the bounty in our lives.

Because we have practiced these emotions, we have an expectation for what comes next: redemption, comfort, joy, gratitude and even repentance. Think of it this way: do you remember mix tapes? Remember how you would listen to one over and over and over to the point that when you heard a song from the mix on the radio, you felt a little disappointed when you didn't hear the next song from the mix at its conclusion? The liturgical calendar is a little like that. It creates spiritual associations for the universal experiences in which we all find ourselves at some point or another. Fasting ritualistically prepares us for life's lean seasons because practice tells us we can look forward to breaking the fast with joy someday. Mourning the death of the deity or even fearing that we ourselves have not been written in the Book of Life this year prepares us for the death of loved ones because every year the spiritual story has a happy ending. The ritual acknowledges the need to mourn and atone and makes space for it but reminds us that ultimately life is for living.

The Christian liturgical calendar has two poles holding it up: Christmas and Easter. Birth and Death. Could there be two more universal experiences?

For many of us, Christmas is an entire season, starting at the beginning of the month of December with the First Sunday of Advent. Advent means "coming" and by ceremonies of anticipation for each of the four Sundays before Christmas, we replay what Mary and Joseph (and all expectant parents) must have felt: excitement, self-reflection followed by a sense that we don't measure up, reassurance from outside sources that we will be fine, reaffirmation of why we made the choice to have children (or embark on any endeavor), preparation of the necessary accessories to the birth including love, swaddling clothes and the gracious acceptance of gifts.

My life feels pretty chaotic right now. Jacob points out that to the outside observer, it doesn't look chaotic but it certainly feels that way. I've lost the list of things to do that I wrote a month ago, my things are strewn around the house because we haven't yet assembled the shelves that should have been done in October. Craft projects are piled everywhere. Stuff I've cleaned out of my purse as I was walking out the door is piled everywhere. Nothing has been cleaned, like with soap and water, in weeks. (The kitchen counters might be the only exception to this.) Work emotionally exhausts me daily. I'm digging into some pretty heavy stuff with my therapist. There are several important friends that I haven't seen in over 3 months and some in over 6. My efforts to do some the work that needs to be done for our church to thrive has been cut back to the bare minimum, which does not feel like enough. To top this all off, my body is becoming increasingly high maintenance, needing food and fluids at much more frequent intervals, which also requires me to urinate much more frequently or experience light-headedness if I don't pay attention to my body's demands. The nausea in the first trimester caused me to stop working out and I haven't yet put that back into my schedule, which makes me feel slow and creaky. I have roommates for whom I don't do a particularly good job of making feel welcome. The Christmas letter is definitely not written.

I'm a hot mess.

I'm happy, which is a blessing. Tired and totally spacey but happy. There is a low-grade despair that seems to be always lurking around the corner because of the chaos in my head, but when it makes a full-blown appearance, Jacob lays on top of me while I cry and then I feel better. He and I are particularly playful and I only yell at him every once in awhile and mostly without the venom and instability that I displayed in the past. We watch TV to decompress and I slowly accumulated the necessary Chanukah and Christmas presents.

But we haven't really celebrated Advent this year.

And I have missed it.

We haven't celebrated Advent because, frankly, Jacob is still uncomfortable with it and I didn't want to fight for it amidst all the other chaos. So, no tree, no decorations, no candle ceremonies, no Christmas music.

I have missed it.

There is an emptiness in me from the absence of the rituals of preparation. My decisions and motivations are built upon a foundation that views Jesus as a divine teacher whose ultimate sacrifice on behalf of mankind was a major example of God's love for us. Opting out of the spiritual practice of anticipation and preparation - especially when, for the first time, I am expecting my own child - was a mistake. My decisions and motivations wobble if I don't maintain the foundation through participation in my own liturgical calendar.

I have absolute faith that Jacob will come around. He has promised to create a home where our children feel comfortable living into their identity as products of both Christianity and Judaism. This will only happen when he celebrates Christmas with joy. He will eventually find values in Christmas that are meaningful to him much like I value food deep-fried in oil for Chanukah and the gathering of friends even though the victory of the Maccabees means nothing to me. I know it's hard for him and I know why it's hard for him. It's worth reading the comments on the Velveteen Rabbi's post on Christmas through Jewish eyes if you want to go deeper into where he is coming from.

And he's trying. Remembering that I expressed interest in the Do-It-Yourself Messiah last year, he got us tickets and doggedly sight-read the entire piece so that I could immerse myself in an experience I haven't had since college. It was phenomenal to flex those muscles again (figuratively and literally). I was astounded to come across passages that I vividly remember being drilled in the rhythms or note patterns to get them right.

My father asked me a few weeks ago if I considered myself athletic and I said that I did. I feel like I have slightly above-average eye-hand coordination and enough hours logged successful being athletic that I have the necessary confidence to tackle physical tasks without the nervous hesitation that will guarantee athletic failure. Also, I have muscle memory. When I pick up a tennis racket, I can shift it to the right position in my hand if the ball comes to my left side rather than my right. I follow through on my strokes without thinking about it. I catch things that are thrown at me. I throw things where I want them to go. In yoga, I can isolate and refine movement such as tilting my pelvis correctly or balancing better by adjusting my center of gravity. I have been seeing a physical therapist for an old injury that pregnancy has re-ignited and she loves working with me because I'm "body conscious."

This athleticism is necessary in singing a piece like Handel's Messiah. How you stand affects the quality of breaths you can take. How you hold your music affects how you well you can watch the conductor. How you hold your head affects the sound of the notes you make.

I remembered all of it even though I haven't been in a choir in 8 years. It was glorious.

In Waiting for Guffman, one of the subtle pieces of humor is that the strange little music director who feels threatened by Corky has built a professional-grade orchestra out of the various members of this little Midwestern community. My childhood experience was like that. I was taught by classically-trained musicians who imparted good technical form, professional behavior standards and a sense of discipline through regular and rigorous rehearsals. Sure, lots of kids goofed off but those of us that wanted to be at the top of our games were given the opportunity. I was blessed with a voice that people like to listen to and doubly-blessed to be born into a community that had the resources to help it flourish. I get so much satisfaction from singing a difficult piece well.

There is no audience at the DIY Messiah. The audience is full of participants. Self-satisfaction in one's own group participation is the only motivation.

It filled in some of the emptiness. For an encore, the director had the audience play the Hallelujah Chorus again. I had already put away my score but actually know that movement by heart. To stand and sing victoriously to the sky with no sheet music to block my communication, "The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our lord," nearly caused me to lose it entirely. It is a ritual that I know by heart to begin quietly for the first half of the sentence because I do not belong in the world. As Yoda says, "Luminous creatures are we." Without fail, the music suddenly becomes loud and the orchestra fully supports us as we sing of the radical transformation and shift of power. Where before the world used to be in charge, I can now choose to put God in charge with the coming of Christ. So powerful. So redemptive. It reminds us of the creation of the world. God (or Aslan) speaks a word and the chaos becomes ordered.

The old pastor of my parents' church would walk into the darkened church on Christmas Eve with one candle and recite with gravitas, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." This piece of scripture explicitly describes Jesus as the Word that brought order out of chaos.

Singing Handel's Messiah again was a spiritual practice to help me remember that I can choose to put God in charge of my life. That I am not left to wallow in this chaos alone.

What is the Word? It can be a lot of things. Certainly, John says that the Word is Jesus and I think he was definitely a physical manifestation of the larger definition. What makes the most sense to me is to think of the Word as the guidelines that God puts forth in scripture for how to make decisions in order to be satisfied with this life. Love others. Make them feel welcome. Take care of the hurting. Work towards justice. Rest. Tithe. Be mindful.

Keeping a kosher home has certainly given me new insight on how to hear God's Word if it is defined this way: as the laws she sets forth. My favorite part of saying the Shabbat blessings is that after I light the candles I say in Hebrew, "Thank you, God, for giving us your commandments." The Word is something to be grateful for.

Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the laws that the Jews followed in an attempt to be faithful to God. Instead, he came to fulfill them. He was born to help give people that next big push that they needed to be faithful to God. For many folks, the Jewish purity laws weren't helping anymore, so like she always has, God sent a new Word to help people create order out of Chaos and to put their relationship with God as the highest priority in their lives by following the teachings of Jesus, which were informed by the Jewish purity laws and, by the way, their liturgical calendar.

I told my pastor friend yesterday that I believe God leads us to our spouses to teach us that we don't always get everything that we want immediately. We have to practice waiting and working in good faith for that which has been promised to us during our marriage vows. This, too, is part of choosing to put God in charge, which will bring order out of the chaos. It is practice for the larger narrative of an entire life. I may feel a little empty without a tree or Advent candles this year but I got what I needed from Handel's Messiah and Jacob is the one who delivered me to that ritual.

I will wait in good faith for the birth of Jesus on Saturday and I will work in good faith alongside my husband to create the interfaith house that we have promised each other.

O come let us adore him.


Jake and Jess said...

Thank you.

rbarenblat said...

Think of it this way: do you remember mix tapes? Remember how you would listen to one over and over and over to the point that when you heard a song from the mix on the radio, you felt a little disappointed when you didn't hear the next song from the mix at its conclusion? The liturgical calendar is a little like that.

What a wonderful analogy. Yes! Yes, it is like that indeed.

Do you know the book "Common Prayers" by Harvey Cox? He's a Christian married to a Jewish woman, and "Common Prayers" is his book about his experience of the Jewish liturgical calendar from his insider-outsider perspective. I reviewed it a while back, if you're curious -

PrincessMax said...

Thanks for commenting, Rachel! I did read Common Prayers when we were first planning our wedding. I thought it was very well written and probably had more influence on my thoughts than I can consciously give it credit for. It's probably worth re-reading at some time.

Unfortunately, I felt like the recommendation from many that I read it while preparing for marriage was not appropriate to my needs at the time. Although it was helpful that he states clearly the belief that his marriage made him a better Christian and his wife a better Jew, I needed a conversation about how they came to that conclusion since I was facing a lot of turmoil on that topic and needed some arguments to defend myself.

Additionally, they were raising their son to be solely Jewish, which was not going to be our choice and for which we were receiving a lot of push-back (both internally and externally).

Finally, I was made somewhat angry that they ONLY book anyone recommended was a book about how a Christian man's spiritual life was made deeper and more rich because of his exposure to Judaism. Where are the books about Jewish people whose spiritual lives are made richer and and deeper from their exposure to to the traditions of Christianity? (But not through conversion - I know there are lots of those books - not helpful.) I know this is the pitiful cry of the privileged cultural majority but I really needed some confirmation from some authority anywhere that my traditions had value, too. Yes, a terrible history of oppression, but also substance and meaning that made it worthwhile to pursue for millions of good, intelligent people. Mixed marriages cannot be built solely on the guilt and reparations of the privileged member.

Common Prayers never set out to be that kind of book so my experience with it suffered more for the "sparkle that [I] think it lacks" than for it's actual content, which from reading your review was actually quite sparkly, just not the sparkly I was looking for.

Thanks again for reading and commenting. Good luck at Knox!