Sitting in my office tonight, working late by the light of moody lamps instead of the overhead lights, on the first day that feels cold enough to be winter and in a week that is full of preparations for both Thanksgiving and Advent, I pulled out the recording of the first Christmasfest I participated in, "He Comes to Us," back in December 2000. I feel old when I think about the fact that ten years have passed since that season.
It is hard to put it into words, the feelings that arise when I think about that Christmasfest season. Perhaps it was because it was my first Christmasfest, or perhaps it was because it had been a particularly difficult fall semester, and I was in the process of rebuilding myself after so much of what my energy and identity had relied on had crumbled around me.
I only remember fleeting details – coming back early after Thanksgiving and the uniquely Advent feel of a dark and quiet campus, devoid of most of its students, save the comparatively small number of musicians who seemed a part of some quiet, campy, appreciative club. I remember eating pizza by myself in my dorm room, with no lights on besides a few strings of Christmas lights. I remember amusing myself by making tissue-paper snowflakes that I stuck to the windows with tiny drops of glue. I’m not sure that I remember anything in particular about Christmasfest rehearsals – either the regular, during the normal school week variety or the special ones that took place Thanksgiving weekend and the Wednesday night dress rehearsal.
But I remember the feel of the music. I remember how I would stand with my eyes closed along the back edge of Skogland in a great ring around the audience, listening to the orchestra play "Sola Gratia." I remember the way that I so earnestly tried to let that song be a prayer without words for me, and the way that one particular cello line was, to me, the voice of God. I remember the way it felt to sing “Splendor is Coming,” and the way that the pensiveness of the text and the open fifths in the harmonies didn’t just fit the Christmasfest theme, “He Comes to Us,” but rather embodied and enlivened it. It was as if this anthem were written specifically to evoke every Advent corner of our souls, which long for Christ’s hope and peace more deeply than we often recognize. I remember the way that this music felt in my gut and in my spine as it swelled. I remember the way that it made my skin tingle with an anticipation that my own spiritual self couldn’t muster up on its own.
I remember the excitement and the butterflies that accompanied the processional hymn, the sense throughout the evening that I was a tiny part of something huge, the feeling of suspended animation in the room and the way that the outside world simply disappeared for those couple hours. And that feeling of being in the middle of what felt like the only existing true, real, authentic moment was present both in rehearsals and in performances.
Of course, I remember other things about that first Christmasfest year: back massages for the Ole Choir men sitting in front of us, the funny signs on the backs of the orchestra’s chairs (for our eyes only), the black ballet slippers I bought after dress rehearsal because real shoes felt too precarious when I processed across the narrow bleachers, or the odd layers of tights, shorts, and pajama pants I wore from my dorm to Skogland so that I could stay warm on my walk, but then be able to wear shorts under my robe, but still have tights on so that any outside observer would assume that I was wearing a dress under my robe.
I still remember most of the words from those songs, even now, ten years later. I still even remember many verses from the hymns that I worked so hard to memorize by writing them out on index cards and carrying them with me everywhere! I still find listening to Christmasfest recordings bittersweet; sometimes I crave the truly Advent spirit that the music embodies, but sometimes the music and the memories to which it connects hit a little too close to home and make me feel a little too vulnerable.
This is probably less a factor of Christmasfest itself and more a factor of the way that I am wired. Music and memory connect for me in pretty crazy ways. Music can conjure up not only memories and associations, but the very real, tangible emotions of those memories. Music really does transport me to a different time and place.
And so, as I prepare for Advent, the season of preparation, I find myself looking back to the way that preparing for Christmasfest was also a way of preparing for the season of preparation. I will most certainly celebrate the start of Advent with a post (again) about “Rejoice, Rejoice Believers,” which has similarly strong Christmasfest ties, as well as particular ties to a good friend of mine. But for tonight, “Splendor is Coming” is my Christmasfest musical memory of choice, and a great way to think about the coming not only of the Advent season, but the Christ to which that season points:
Splendor Is Coming
Music: Watler L. Pelz
Text: Herbert Brokering
Tree of David
terribly cut to ground
lay in her ashes.
Splendor is waiting in a kingdom of power.
Son of David
Quietly born on the ground
lay in his manger.
Splendor is coming in a kingdom of glory.
Child of David
gloriously rise from ground;
stand in forgiveness.
Splendor is present in a kingdom forever.
His splendor is coming and here,
in a kingdom of power and glory forever.