Unsilent Night: An Advent Revelation

Sun in black sky

Last Saturday after dark, about 60 people gathered at a Seattle’s On the Boards theater to begin a neighborhood walk called “Unsilent Night.” Created in 1992 by New York composer Phil Kline, it is a “luminous soundscape” enacted for 45 minutes on a single night in December. This year, 37 American and Canadian cities joined in.

Participants downloaded one of 4 separate but complementary music tracks of ambient minimalism on their phones, and carried portable speakers as they walked the streets together in a collective mobile sound sculpture. NPR has described Unsilent Night this way: “chiming and chants bounce off walls and windows, transforming the coldest urban area with the warmth of musical fellowship.”

And so we began, moving block by block, a mesmerizing river of sound flowing slowly along the sidewalks of the city. An initial shimmering of bright cascading notes eventually evolved into the low rumble of droning chords, succeeded by percussive xylophone patterns, as if Steve Reich were composing for gamelan. Those metallic notes later gave way to more drones and electronic chords, which became the ground for choral fragments: Gregorian chants, wordless repetitions of ‘ah’ pitched at varied intervals, and melismatic Alleluias. Despite this discernible evolution of musical shifts and changes, the cumulative effect felt unhurried and relaxed.

The Queen Anne neighborhood is a lively mix of small shops, restaurants, and theaters, plus a cinema and basketball arena. A diverse assortment of people was already out looking for the heart of Saturday night, so there were many witnesses to our sonic procession. But surprisingly few showed much reaction. Some stared blankly, as if this unexpected phenomenon eluded their emotional register. They simply didn’t know what to make of it. Others looked away, perhaps wishing us into invisibility. Such a thing should not be happening in their world, so they pretended it wasn’t. Still others wore earbuds, disabling any receptivity to a reality beyond their own self-enclosure.

Yet some indeed had ears to hear, responding with smiles or looks of wonder. Car windows rolled down to let in the sound. The Latino doorman of a boutique hotel grinned ear to ear as we passed. A homeless woman in a wheelchair gave us a knowing smile, as if we were a welcome sign of sad times ending.

Like the best liturgy, it created community out of strangers through a shared action, and forged our collectivity into both sign and instrument of mystery and wonder. It was a perfect rite for Advent, contesting the old order while announcing an “impossible possible” drawing near. For the 45 minutes of the sound sculpture, sidewalks designed for functionality (keep moving to your next purchase, or go home!) became spaces for play. The ugliness of traffic noise was challenged by sweeter sounds. Strangers were invited to smile at one another, forgetting their solitudes for a few precious moments. And the birth of something deeply poetic usurped the accustomed prose of urban life.

As Twylene Moyer has written concerning participatory public art, it invites us “to re-evaluate what we mean by quality of life, to reassess what we think we know, and to reconsider how we choose to live with ourselves and each other.”[i] Why shouldn’t we feel fully at home in our public spaces, experiencing them as places of human affection and delight, inclusiveness and solidarity, joy and wonder? Why can’t we?

Theologian Langdon Gilkey makes an even more sweeping claim for such a re-visioning process. Art, he says, “makes us see in new and different ways, below the surface and beyond the obvious. Art opens up the truth hidden and within the ordinary; it provides a new entrance into reality and pushes us through that entrance. It leads us to what is really there and really going on. Far from subjective, it pierces the opaque subjectivity, the not seeing, of conventional life, of conventional viewing, and discloses reality.”[ii]

Seeing “the truth hidden and within the ordinary,” piercing the “not seeing of conventional life” with the inbreaking of deeper reality – these comprise the essence of Christianity’s annual Advent project. Not everyone welcomes this kind of seeing, and many reject its very possibility. But for at least some of us who experienced the wonder of Unsilent Night, a richer account of the universe, making room for the transcendent, felt more persuasive than the alternatives.

As I walked in this procession of glorious sound, an Advent hymn came to mind:

Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding.
“Christ is nigh,” it seems to say.

Not everyone would put the name of Christ to what we did and the sound we made together, but that doesn’t alter the content of the experience.

If God is more of a situation than an object, then the community, relationality, mystery, beauty, wonder, delight, and communion produced by the event seemed apt expressions of divinity taking “place,” or “being here now.” You didn’t have to name it to live it.

Toward the end of our walk we were led into a bit of open space set back from the street, where the music was not so compromised by traffic noise. And there our little speakers, one by one, began to ring with a peal of sonorous bell tones, until we were all immersed in such a joyous tintinnabulation that I could imagine myself in heaven. Every face I saw around me glowed with amazement. If the Incarnation were a sound, this would be it, suddenly sanctifying a scrubby vacant lot in Queen Anne.

As the bells faded, we processed one more block, back to our starting point, where we stood in what felt like a prayer circle while the final portion of the composition slowly faded into silence. Some closed their eyes, and everyone seemed rapt and attentive, in a state of peace and gratitude.

Once the music ended, the spell was quickly broken. We went our separate ways, strangers once more, but perhaps “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.”[iii] For a moment we had known something better, and would not forget.

 

 

 

 

[i] Twylene Moyer, Artists Reclaim the Commons: New Works/New Territories/New Publics (Ed. Glenn Harper and Twylene Moyer, Hamilton, NJ: isc Press, 2013), 8

 

[ii] Langdon Gilkey, from an address given at the Art Institute of Chicago, published as “Can Art Fill the Vacuum?” in Art, Creativity and the Sacred: An Anthology in Religion and Art, ed. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona (New York: Crossroad, 1984), 189-90

[iii] The phrase is from T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” expressing the incompatibility of what the Magi had experienced in Bethlehem with the unredeemed world to which they returned.

“God isn’t fixing this”

Advent installation by Jim Friedrich at St. John's Episcopal Church, Los Angeles (1977)

Advent installation by Jim Friedrich at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Los Angeles (1977)

O come, O come Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel.

Once upon a time, worshippers entered their church on the Second Sunday of Advent to find a great wall between themselves and the sanctuary. The beautiful mosaics, the richly colored marble walls, and the magnificent carved Christ above the high altar were all hidden from view by this strange iconostasis, made from front pages of the Los Angeles Times. Instead of the images of holy men and women that adorn a traditional altar screen, there were banner headlines screaming catastrophe and mayhem.

When the assembly was seated, a mime came up the aisle to stand before the wall, searching for some way through it. His movements and gestures indicated perplexity, frustration, and finally discouragement. Then a voice from beyond the wall cried out,

Jerusalem, turn your eyes to the east,
see the joy that is coming to you from God. (Baruch 4:36).

Responding to the voice, the mime tore a small hole in the wall, and peeked through. He seemed entranced by what he saw.

The voice continued:

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem,
and put on forever the beauty of God’s glory. (Baruch 5:1)

The mime began to tear down the wall, encouraging others to join him. One by one, people rose from their pews to rip down the veil “of sorrow and affliction,” until the beauty of God’s sanctuary was finally revealed.

This simple but powerful ritual, the prelude to a eucharist I curated forty years ago at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, comes to mind whenever I hear that passage from Baruch in the December lectionary. It’s what we pray for each Advent from our place on this side of the wall: Good Lord, deliver us. Stir up your power. Tear down the wall between us. Show us your glory.

That wall of headlines reflected my ongoing interest in connecting Advent themes with the news of the world. The WTO protests in Seattle (1999) and the Occupy Movement (2011) both coincided nicely with Advent, mirroring its prophetic themes of judging the present order with the hope and vision of something better.[i] And just last week, the front page of the New York Daily News supplied a marvelous Advent provocation. By noon, it had 11 million Facebook views, and 74,000 shares.

New York Daily News, 12/3/15

New York Daily News, 12/3/15

The headline was a sharp rebuke to the shameless politicians who promise prayers for the victims of gun violence while refusing to do anything about the guns. Calling them “cowards who could truly end gun scourge” but instead “hide behind pious platitudes,” the newspaper offered a blunt theological assertion: “God isn’t fixing this.”[ii]

The daily office Old Testament readings for early Advent, calling the world to account for its evils, say much the same thing. To those who refuse to “renounce the dictates of our own wicked hearts,”[iii] the prophets imagine God declaring, “You made your own bed. Now lie in it.” (Thankfully, the prophets always redeem their rants in the end with comforting decrees of mercy and salvation).

However, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas was not comfortable with the Daily News’ riff on the old biblical idea that God sometimes gets fed up with human folly. His photoshopped revision was posted on Facebook and Twitter.

God hears our prayers

Of course this clueless retort (note the unfortunate juxtaposition of the headline with the red banner above it) did not actually answer the question of whether – or how – God acts in the world to “fix” things. It was just a clumsy attempt by a presumed gun lover to change the subject. Platitudes about prayer in the abstract are safe because they have no consequences, unlike real prayer, which always implicates the petitioner in a process of change and action. If we pray for an end to gun violence, we obligate ourselves to do all in our power to reduce it. Prayer is a call for action; it politicizes what we pray for. Prayer is not simply leaving things up to God. It is an act of volunteering to be part of God’s solution.

But is there such a thing as God’s solution? Does God – can God – fix things? It is not a question with a clear and simple answer. Human freedom has thrown a monkey wrench into the story of the world, while God has surrendered absolute control of the narrative. If we make a mess of things, God is not an indulgent parent rushing in to cover for us. We don’t get to multiply our weapons and then wonder why God allows so much violence.

So where does that leave us? In the Advent section of his Christmas Oratorio,[iv] W. H. Auden describes a closed-in, godless world where hope is absent.

Alone, alone about a dreadful wood
Of conscious evil runs a lost mankind …
The Pilgrim Way has led to the abyss.

But what if we are not alone? What if there is a God who can make the abyss into a way? What if an unexpected future is breaking through the walls of our self-made prison? The Advent message is to embrace this hope, as we take off the garments of sorrow and affliction to welcome the God of joy into our midst.

Whatever the “solution” (salvation) may be in the tangled histories of the world and the soul, it is a long-term, sometimes excruciating, process, requiring honest engagement with the consequences of human sin in acts of confession, repentance, reconciliation, justice, healing, sacrifice, and transformation. And I submit that these are not simply things we do with God, as though God were only a helper from the outside. They are things we do in God, or God does in us, as our own intentions and actions become the embodiment – the incarnation – of divine purpose.

So yes, I believe that God is fixing the world, but not in the short run. And not without us.

 

 

 

 

 

[i] I preached on both these events at the time, with mixed results. Some were not so ready to find traces of God in social movements which trouble the powers-that-be. One church subsequently banned me from its pulpit for being too “partisan.” Guilty as charged.

[ii] New York Daily News, December 3, 2015.

[iii] Baruch 2:8

[iv] W. H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976), 273