These are Advent days. That means that they stand out, that they are – in their own way – strange days.
Today I unpacked most of the boxes packed in June in Cambridge that have been sitting in the heat and then the cold in Hudson until now. Books on shelves again. Art and photography unwrapped and leaning on new walls; walls made new by what hangs upon them, as these walls have been standing since something like 1834. This is likely one of the few Episcopal rectories in which there hangs a stylized portrait of Pope John XXIII, created in 1965, two years following his death. Late that same year I was walking home from grade school by Town Hall and the Library in Swampscott. It was trash day, and peeking out at me from one of the barrels along the street was the dead, and highly celebrated, pope. Some instinct in my young heart took umbrage at this sight. I pulled him out, and carried him home, and wherever I’ve been since, he’s been there with me. And now he is here this Advent night.
Tonight I climbed onto the R train and rode to 49th Street in Manhattan, intent on witnessing the lighting of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. It was set to begin at 7:00pm. I left here at 4:30, sure that I was early. I was surely not. I got close, but the crowds were so huge that the one place left to enter would have assured us, as the NY police officer assured the crowd, “a view of two buildings and none of the tree.”
I retreated to the general area, sucked in the light and the energy of Times Square, of Broadway, of couples and families rushing into the theaters, of Christmas decorations blinking and shining everywhere. A visit to Chipotle and a follow-up at Starbucks assured that the night was a relative success.
On the train, going and coming as often happens, individuals entered and spoke into the human silence amid the machinery’s clang, the shriek of metal on metal and the groanings of the brakes. First, a man from the Bronx stood at the far end from where I sat, and between two stops he spoke loudly about the power of prayer and wished all a very happy Christmas. The young men neared me laughed at him, and then gave him a few coins. Later a tiny woman with a tiny voice boarded, again at the far end of the car. From where I sat, I heard her voice, but none of its syllables. It was like the sound of a bird outside a window on a clear crisp morning at breakfast time. It is there, and there is beauty if you are there to recognize it – or perhaps it is only simple nonsense. Perhaps it depends on what you’re listening for, or whether you’re listening at all!
Forty minutes later I was in the midst of the mass of humanity striving to get within view of the soon-to-be-lit tree with its thousands of environmentally-friendly lights and its five miles (as advertised) of wiring. Something about being alone in a crowd fosters strange thoughts, perhaps Advent-appropriate. I have often heard folks saying, in apparent jest, “I love humanity, it’s people I can’t stand.” Tonight as I compare those two individual voices that rose and fell on the train with the huge crowd between 5th and 7th Avenues at 49th, 50th and 51st, I sense in myself exactly the opposite – an unaccustomed thought for me: “It is individuals that I love; humanity drives me crazy.”
In large numbers – the 1,000,000 I sang with on the Esplanade in Boston on July 4 of the bicentennial year, the 4,000,000 I walked among in Paris at World Youth Day in 1998 – we are simply a herd. On those two occasions a happy and complacent herd (the best kind) but still a herd. Tonight I speak in preference of the single voice crying out in the wilderness – whether it be wacky John the Baptist in the Judean desert according to Scripture, or the wacky man and woman in the wilderness of the R train as it plowed through the netherworld from Brooklyn to Manhattan on the last night of November 2010. These voices are largely ignored as they first speak. But there is grandeur in the fact that they have the strength and the commitment to speak at all.
In the crowd tonight in the general vicinity of the Tree, it was easy to know what to do. Simply listen for the instructions of New York’s finest, out in force, and keep moving. That’s alright. It’s called public order, and I am all in favor of it.
But somehow, I hear something more properly and grandly human in the single voice speaking, as spoke the voice of John XXIII.
Maybe this lesson for the night then, if not for the season:
If you have something to say, say it – and let none of us in the herd tell you otherwise.