Each December, my daughter-in-law invites me to join her and her mom for a singalong of Handel’s Messiah with the Tafelmusik baroque orchestra in Toronto. There are no auditions; a purchased ticket provides the privilege of singing in passionate, impromptu community. Hundreds of us pour into Massey Hall on the last Sunday afternoon before Christmas, and for the next couple of hours, our voices fill the great soundscape. George Frideric Handel leads us with wild, waving arms, looking fabulous for someone who died over 250 years ago.
“For unto us a child is born” is one of my favourite portions. Our three alto voices weave and blend with the others, harmoniously declaring that “the government shall be on his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor . . . Prince of Peace!” It stirs my soul.
In her book Worshipping in the Small Membership Church, Robin Knowles Wallace, a professor of worship and music at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, writes, “Christians developed the spiritual practice of singing together to involve themselves more deeply in prayer; to express praise, gratitude, and lament; to teach the language of faith; and to express unity.”
Singing in community does all of these things. And Christmas is a time when people we rarely see on Sunday morning come to church to sing the carols that stir their souls — and ours. Singing reweaves a soul-full community. It opens our hearts to a powerful story, Divine presence and the promise of unity.
But even those who don’t go to church are rediscovering the spiritual values of singing together in all kinds of diverse communities. Choir! Choir! Choir! has been gathering people in Toronto pubs to sing since 2011, for example. When I watch their events on YouTube, I have no doubt that they’ve changed lives. Strangers stream into varied venues to pick up their sheet music and launch into the song of the hour with that night’s band. I dare you to watch the video of these young adults singing Wham’s Last Christmas without bouncing and singing along.
Good singing doesn’t just happen. It demands disciplined attention to breathing, careful reading and some control of larynx muscles. It also demands that we pay attention to those around us — and that’s where we can experience that feeling of unity between one another and with the Other. “Bringing voices together in a choir lends itself to the idea that a whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” says Choir! Choir! Choir! co-founder Nobu Adilman in an online video. “People can feel connections between themselves and the people who surround them . . . and [that] can often stir deep emotion,” adds co-founder Daveed Goldman.
Of course, singing isn’t just about melody, rhythm and good vibrations. It’s also about the words that make up our songs. And while old words can be comforting, connecting us with communities of the past, at times the ancient language cramps my sense of inclusiveness and of the Holy. I start translating in my head and sometimes on my tongue. Paradoxically, it’s this movement from heart to head that stops inspiration in its tracks. I’m left feeling alone, even when singers surround me.
So this Christmas, I will simply sing the songs that ask to be sung, understanding that the communal repertoire widens slowly and steadily.
One of my favourite carols is O Little Town of Bethlehem, because it captures so beautifully what I feel happening when I sing in community: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. . . . The dear Christ enters in.”
Which Christmas carols stir your soul?
Mardi Tindal is a facilitator and mentor with the Center for Courage & Renewal and a former United Church moderator.
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