I'm listening to Bach's Magnificat while I begin work on next Sunday's sermon. It is among my favorite choral works. I became acquainted with it a few years ago, when I did a project on it in an interm class on Bach during my year of coursework at LSTC. I listened to it a hundred times in preparation for that project, I'm sure. And I fell in love with it. I began to long for an opportunity to sing it, feeling intimately acquainted with the music and all of the thought, brilliance, and symbolism that Bach had put into it.
Fate or blessing or providence intervened, and two years later, I was given the opportunity to sing it with an amazing group of musicians last January, at the annual Bach for the Sem benefit concert. Rehearsing it and singing it thrilled me. All of the work that I had done to learn the score for my project made rehearsals more enjoyable, and all of the passion of the music that had inspired my longing to sing it made performing it all the sweeter.
One of the unique things about Bach for the Sem, as opposed to most other concerts I've sung in my life, is that (as far as I know) it is a purely one-time event. Each year, we rehearse for one singular performance that is not recorded. My first year, I remember feeling disappointed that I had no recording to take with me - no artifact. As a music-lover, I enjoy both performing and listening to music. This means that I especially enjoy listening to recordings of performances I have been a part of. It is fun to re-live the performance as I listen to it later. But Bach for the Sem asked something new and different of me: I could be a performer or a listener, but not both.
These days, heading into my fourth Bach for the Sem, I have made peace with the fact that it will not be recorded, either for posterity or archive. Actually, I have done more than simply "made peace" with it. I find it rather exhilarating. Let me explain.
The one-time nature of musical performance, Bach for the Sem or otherwise, is something unique to the musical art form. Music is performed from scores, and music can be recorded, but neither of those things are the actual music itself. Music is art that is created on the spot, that exists only in that moment, that is nothing if it is not experienced. There is thus an amazing intimacy to the act of musical performance. Those performing and those listening are members of an exclusive club. They share in that moment something wholly unique. Every note sung or played in that space is unique to that space, that time, and that experience. It's a brilliantly exciting venture, knowing that what we are experiencing is entirely new in that moment, new and unrepeatable. Even if we were to gather the very next day - the same musicians, the same audience - and were to repeat the concert, it wouldn't be the same. We are human, fallible, inconsistent, and therefore no amount of rehearsal can guarantee that we will ever create the same art that we did the day before.
And so, music can make our hearts race in a way that no other art form can (save dance, perhaps, which is intimately related to music anyway). It is art that is itself an event. A one-time event. An event exclusive to those who are there to experience it. Music is the art of the eternal new and the eternal now.
Sometimes I get too comfortable with God as Alpha and Omega, beginning and end. I take advantage of knowing that God was there ages before I was born, and I know that God will be there ages after I die. And sometimes, this knowledge lulls me into letting God drift away into the background of my life. God's always there, but these bills need to be paid today. God's always there, but my car needs gas now. God's always there, but these meetings and appointments have to happen this week. It's easy to think of God as always being there in the same way that a painting is an artifact that is always there, available for viewing and experiencing at my convenience. And there are plenty of times that it is good to have a God who is like a painting or sculpture, ready for whenever I am ready to interact.
But especially as we head into the hope and anticipation of Advent, I think I need my God to be more like music. I need God to be eternally now and eternally new: alive and creative and unique in every spirit-filled moment of life. I need a God who is best known through the intimacy of experience, rather than the incomplete witness of either a printed musical score or a recording to listen to later. Because in Advent, we aren't just looking back at the historical birth of Jesus, and we aren't just looking forward at the promises of Jesus' coming again. In Advent, we are called to live in the moment, experiencing each day the hope and anticipation of receiving anew the God who was and who is and who is to come. It is a season where our hope resides in the God we experience here and now, the God who shows up in amazing and unexpected ways, the God who meets us in every moment. Our hope is in the God who is music sung and played, bouncing off the walls and ceiling of a vaulted cathedral, ringing in the ears of all who have come to listen, each note fading away to make room for the next one as the eternal and the present meet in unique moments that stir and inspire our souls.