The other day when I was in Geelong, I was walking through the busy city mall with about twenty hundred thousand other people on a retail mission, as we are all wont to be this time of year. I decided to cross the street between two shopping malls, and as I walked out of the glass sliding doors onto the street outside and prepared to cross at the pedestrian crossing, I heard this amazing sound.
I looked around me, and standing in front of the department store windows to my side was a young woman. On the ground in front of her was a plastic jar, an iPhone and a small speaker. She was about twenty maybe, dressed simply in a pink t shirt and jeans, no makeup, her hair pulled back in a pony tail. And she was singing.
Christmas carols, in the most beautiful operatic voice I think I’ve ever heard in real life.
Her mouth was open and this amazing, beautiful, spine-chilling sound was coming out. Right there in the street. I froze on the spot, and my own mouth dropped open.
I watched as people on the other side of the road emerged from the shopping centre doors and looked around in confusion to see where this transcendent noise, sailing, lilting, drifting as it was above the street sounds, was coming from. As they crossed at the green walk signal, and their eyes found her in the crowd, smile after smile spread across formerly frowning faces. Some stopped, the dissonance of the surroundings and the sound they heard within it clear on their expressions. And all the while, she kept on singing.
“Oh, holy night,
The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth…..”
And I am not shamed to say, as I stood a few metres away from her, transported by her voice and the juxtaposition of what I was seeing all around me and what I was hearing in my ears and spirit, I wept. I just cried. I closed my eyes, and tears came out of them, and I thought about where I was, and what I was doing, and about Jesus, and her voice, and Christmas, and her gift, and the street full of shoppers, and the cars and the stop lights and the rush….and the words that soared from her mouth just pierced into my soul, through it all.
“Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother,
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.”
Even now as I remember this moment in time, I feel my throat tightening. As I listened to her beautiful voice, I wanted to stand there all day. Others came up to her between verses and between songs and pressed their hands into hers, thanking her, their eyes looking deeply into hers, dropping cash into her plastic jar. Blowing her kisses. She was young, she smiled and said a few words to each of them. I wondered if she realised the immense gift she was giving, just by doing this thing which clearly came so easily to her? I wondered if she understood what was going inside the ones who were clearly being touched by her presence, and by her occupying this wholly secular environ with her voice, wrapped as it was around such sacred, holy words?
After a while, I knew it was time for me to go. I took twenty dollars from my purse and stepped over to drop it into her jar. I wanted to tell her how much I enjoyed her gift, appreciated it, to thank her for sharing it, transporting me, and yes, for blessing me.
Because I did indeed feel like I had been blessed. I did not pray. I did not kneel. I did not say a string of memorised words, or act out a liturgy. But I felt as touched by God in that moment as ever I have by any answer to prayer, any word of encouragement, by any religious or spiritual act or ceremony I’ve participated in.
As I stepped up to her, tossing the note into the open jar, I took her hand and went to speak, but no words came out. I looked her in the eyes and soundlessly mouthed, “That was very special.” and smiled. And that was all I could do. I was undone. The capacity to speak had left me completely, I actually had no voice. She stole it and took it away into the air, with hers. That’s what it felt like.
As I walked away, still unable to talk, I whispered, thank you – thank you to a God who gives such heavenly gifts and dispenses them in such humble packages, mangers, shopping malls, swaddling clothes, pink t-shirts. Thank you for gifts which come from nowhere and split the darkness and mundanity of our lives, shining into our eyes like a star from the east, guiding us towards what we long to know, what we are trying to remember, what we desperately want to believe in, and is, and can be. Toward hope.
Looking back on the other day, I can honestly say, in my own cynicism about Christmas and all it has become, all it has lost, and all we still want so desperately for it to represent, I believe, in that small space in time in that unexpected place, I was absolutely and utterly Christmassed, in the truest sense of the word.
May you this year and every year also enjoy the peaceful and sacred Christmas of your own faith, heart and imagination. May you have eyes to see, and ears to hear, the gifts that are all around you, and that lie within you, yours for the receiving, and for the giving.
Love, Jo xxx