Wednesday, December 12, 2012


In Neil Gaiman's American Gods, America's geographical center - a place which one might think would be the most powerful place in the US - is instead its most anti-sacred. The sacred happens where it will, where it has always happened. Geometry has nothing to do with it.

I experienced something like that today. I got to spend the moment 12:12:12 (EST) of 12.12.'12 with my Theorizing Religion students but they were not only completely uninterested, they paid it no heed at all. I called up the official Eastern Standard Time on the class computer and arranged to mention the start of "2001, A Space Odyssey" at roughly that six-twelves moment but they hadn't even been following it in the corners of their eye. I guess I'm older than they, have missed a slew of x:x:x, thinking I ought to have done something special to them, and - more importantly - know this to have been the last. Or are they wiser than me, knowing better than to see significance in coincidence?

Sacred time happened instead at an afternoon music recital, organized at school by my friend H, where some newly composed jazz and some works for violin and piano flanked a remarkable pairing: Brahms' two songs for alto, viola and piano (Opus 91), and a sitar performance (dedicated to the memory of the performer's teacher's teacher Ravi Shankar, who passed way yesterday). These Brahms pieces are ones I have known and loved for years but haven't listened to in a long while. A wonderful reunion. And, amazingly, the Brahms and the sitar piece somehow commingled sweetly in the after-concert drone. Perhaps best of all, the second Brahms song plays off an ancient Christmas melody, Josef, liebster Josef mein... perfect for this tender season, and I'm not sure the young performers even knew it.

Then in the evening another confirmation of the unmovability of the sacred. The choir of Trinity Church started singing Handel's "Messiah" at Alice Tully last year. I went (guess I forgot to mention it here) and was floored by its seamless grace and power, and its theological complexity and sweep - from Christmas through Easter to Judgment. I took a gaggle of friends with me this time, waiting to see their surprise at hearing the famous Halleluiah chorus come not from a choir of angels celebrating a baby's birth but after an aria for tenor, as Christ stampedes through Hell

Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron;
Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel. 

This time it felt weird, somehow. Shattering theology, spectacular performance, but somehow out of place. It moves too quickly from For unto us a child is born... to He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief - and the child isn't even born yet! "Messiah," allowed to be itself, isn't actually a Christmas piece at all! (There may be a moral here about Christianity as a whole...) Bach's "Weichnachtsoratorium," which I will hear Saturday with Philippe Herreweghe's brilliant ensembles from Ghent, should realign things.

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