(Image courtesy of Joetography)
She's a small, stooped woman in the second row. Her two adult daughters flank her sides. Her hair is grey, having been carefully set and combed out and slightly teased. Age has made severe the lines of her downturned mouth. And she isn't smiling, although she is enraptured. When I notice her, the bass, Brett Polegato, is singing the text of 1 Corinthians 15:
The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption and this mortal must put on immortality.
Changed. Incorruption. Immortality.
The Canadian baritone Brett Polegato agilely climbs and descends on these words, luminous and breathtaking and brilliant with promise. The room absolutely stills at this part of the oratorio, and as the Toronto Star describes it, "Polegato’s Air, 'The trumpet shall sound' brought patrons to the edge of their seats."
This, however, cannot fully describe what I saw from my seat on the second balcony behind the orchestra. I was looking into the audience—at the grey-haired woman. Between the moments where she looks with spellbound gaze into the face of Polegato, she alternatively sobs into her hands. Then, willing to compose herself, she dabs her eyes and forehead with a handkerchief and looks up. Her rapture renews, her gaze holds unwaveringly. Then she breaks all over again and buries her face in her hands. This happens six or seven times during the eight-minute aria. It's the only movement in the auditorium that, like bellows, fills with the air of biblical hope:
The dead shall be changed. The corruptible must put on incorruption. This mortal must put on immortality.
Nothing wracks in her aged body. There are no apparent shudders. Hers is a prim and collected grief. At first, I'm almost not sure if she's crying or dizzy—until her daughter drapes an arm consolingly over her shoulder.
The storyteller in me explores the narrative possibilities. Her husband of more than fifty years has recently died. It's her first Christmas alone. Or she herself is terminally ill, living with the sentence of imminent death. Or maybe one of the daughters has been recently diagnosed. Or maybe a grandchild has unexpectedly died.
And maybe it's not grief at all that makes her cry. Maybe there has been no traumatic and unexpected event. Maybe she is seized by the pure and acute joy of knowing, as I do, that death itself will one day die.
That we shall be changed.
It is Christmas—the occasion for thinking of the birth of God. But maybe N.T. Wright is right to lament that Christmas has "outstripped Easter in popular culture as the real celebratory center of the Christian year—a move that completely reverses the New Testament's emphasis."
"We sometimes try, in hymns, prayers, and sermons to build a whole theology on Christmas," says Wright in his book, Surprised by Hope, "but it can't in fact sustain such a thing. . . Easter should be the center. Take that away and there is, almost literally, nothing left."
This Christmas, I'm thinking of God, the baby. I'm also thinking of God, the man. The crucified man. And finally, I'm considering the empty grave—and the resurrected Christ.
I'm hearing the sound of trumpets, and remembering that all exile—even death itself—shall end because Christmas assures the welcome of God and sinners' right of return.
The Word became flesh. We have seen his glory. To all who received him, who believed in his name, He gave the right to become children of God.