BY ELIZABETH McKENZIE
It was a bit like a ‘flash’ event - a group of people, strangers to each other, coming together at an appointed place and on a given signal bursting into a song and dance routine, then melting anonymously into the crowd which had stopped in its tracks to watch them.
For most of the year in our busy lives, we barely had time to acknowledge each other. But at Christmas time, staff members came together briefly, bonding in a much-loved performance.
We grabbed practice time when we could, arriving – sometimes late and breathless – in what ever uniform defined our function: – starched white coats, (medical staff including librarians and psychiatrists); pink starched dresses (administration); slacks and tops (nurses); buff unstarched coats (the usually burly, porters and maintenance crew). Not exactly a rainbow alliance but an alliance nevertheless. We were the Peter Mac Christmas Choir.
On the whole the carols we sang were centred around the celebratory theology of Christmas rather than the celebratory jollity of Santa Claus – ‘Unto us a Child is born’ took precedence over ‘Jingle Bells’. This is not to say that jollity and Santa Claus were not well and truly represented – our aim was to manifest the season of peace and hope and good will in what could be described as a challenging environment.
Our audiences were enthusiastically appreciative. They listened attentively while we affirmed in heartfelt song that on a cold and starry night in Bethlehem two millennia ago, Emmanuel, ‘God-with-us’ had landed in our midst as a tiny baby laid in a manger.
The activity was full of incongruities. Singing ‘And man shall live for ever more because of Christmas Day’ - in the palliative care ward where the patients were not even going to live for the current Christmas Day, whatever about for ‘ever more’, -was a challenging experience. Yet, these patients, their carers and family members were the most rapt listeners of all.
I don’t know whether there were any agnostic or atheistic or ‘other religions’ members of our choir. There must have been agnostic, atheistic, Buddhist, Hindus or Muslims in our target audience. But there were no objections to this uncompromising celebration of an ancient Christian feast, the promise of eternal life in the very real presence of death, the triumph of hope over meaninglessness.
There have been many occasions in my life where personal and/or universal sorrow or tragedy, injustice or catastrophe have challenged my own faith belief. Many times I have wailed ‘If there is a God, how could He let this happen’?
Sometimes the only anchor for my belief in God was that denying His existence didn’t improve the situation or solve the problem! Then I am drawn back to the experience of the choir.
My belief that He is indeed ‘God-with-us’ is renewed and grounded by the memory of the very obvious comfort and strength derived by all who were touched by the message of the carols. A message which deserves to ring out not just from mountains high but from rooftops and marketplaces. The message that God becomes one of us, that in the birth of an infant He is there for us in our brokenness, sickness and sadness. A good reason to rejoice – and to sing with great gusto ‘O come let us adore Him’.
Elizabeth McKenzie is editor of the Tinteán online magazine of the Australian Irish Heritage Network.
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