“People get ready! There’s a train a-coming. You don’t need no baggage; you just get on board. All you need is faith to hear the diesels humming. Don’t need no ticket; you just thank the Lord.”
That’s the opening stanza of Curtis Mayfield’s well-known and beloved song. The tune is a call for preparation, for attentive readiness. It’s a charge to act, to be alert, and it implies that, if we are inattentive, we may miss something important, and we will feel the lack.
Joshua Bell is, arguably, the world’s most famous violinist and also consistently ranked among the world’s best. He is certainly the most entertaining. In addition to filling concert halls, Bell has judged the Miss America Pageant, played for the television show “Dancing With the Stars,” and written music for the likes of Scarlett Johansson (who has a surprisingly good voice, I might add).[i] Bell has been called a heartthrob. His playing is described as “athletic and passionate.” A ticket to see Joshua Bell in person, to hear the sublime music he makes with his Stradivarius violin, costs $200.[ii]
In 2007, the Washington Post decided to see how aware and attentive contemporary Americans are in their surroundings, how open to wonder and surprise.[iii] The Post approached Joshua Bell, asked him to don a t-shirt and baseball cap, and set up as a panhandling musician at L’Enfant Plaza metro station in Washington D.C.
Before the experiment, the Washington Post interviewed Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, for his opinion on how people would respond to Bell’s presence and music in the subway. Sublime music, coupled with Joshua Bell’s magnetic presence, Slatkin predicted, would undoubtedly draw a crowd.
On the day of the experiment, Joshua Bell set up next to a shoe shine stand and a lottery ticket kiosk near the escalator. And then he began to play Johan Sebastian Bach. The Post reports this:
“[Bell] played with acrobatic enthusiasm, his body leaning into the music and arching on tiptoes at the high notes. The sound was nearly symphonic, carrying to all parts of the homely arcade as the pedestrian traffic filed past.”
And no one noticed. Three minutes into the piece, one man hitched and turned his head, a momentary pause as if—maybe—there were something dimly different about this morning, about what he was encountering in the world. But then he turned back and continued on his way. In forty-five minutes of playing, the Washington Post’s hidden camera captured one thousand seventy people pass by Joshua Bell, not to mention the thousands of others within earshot. Seven people stopped to listen. Seven.
Of course, the travesty is compounded by the fact that the thousands of people who crowded by never even realized what they’d missed. The Post reports, “You can play the recording once or fifteen times, and it never gets any easier to watch. Try speeding it up, and it becomes one of those herky-jerky World War I-era silent newsreels. The people scurry by in comical little hops and starts, cups of coffee in their hands, cellphones at their ears, ID tags slapping at their bellies, a grim danse macabre to indifference, inertia and the dingy, gray rush of modernity.”
“The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
John the Baptist is saying, like Curtis Mayfield, “People get ready!” We have entered the Season of Advent, when we prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus, both in remembrance of the Nativity and in expectation of Jesus’ return, when all God’s purposes will be fulfilled and the world will be made new. The former is, of course, chronicled in the Gospels, with a piercingly bright star, the very heavens opening, and an angelic chorus singing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, goodwill toward all people.” And our image of Jesus’ triumphant return is at least equal in its majesty, also tantalizingly alluded to in the Gospels, a description of the Son of Man coming in a cloud with great glory. How could we ever miss that?
But, lest we forget, eons ago most failed to notice that star, and when the shepherds ran through the streets of Bethlehem proclaiming the Incarnation, most people simply turned over in their beds. In Bethlehem on Christmas Day, the King of kings was born, but he did not reign. Indifference, inertia, and the dingy, gray rush of life continued to hold sway.
What does this mean for us, this Advent? It means we have work to do, and I don’t mean the work of putting up the Christmas tree and doing the gift shopping. (Although I’m not one of those priests who zealously combats such things. My own tree went up three days after Thanksgiving.) Our work is to make the path straight, to clear the tracks, to ready ourselves for the star, for the chorus, for the return of the Jesus we claim we want to meet, and to know, and to follow. What does that look like?
It begins with looking up from our lives, raising of our heads, peeling our attention from smart phones, from the cadence of our lockstep walk, from the dingy, gray rush of life to pause, and listen, and see. When we do, we’ll notice three things, all of which are crucial, but not all of which are pleasant.
First, we’ll see the pain we’ve caused, both by our will and by our indifference, by things done and left undone. We’ll see hurt in the eyes of those we love. We’ll see the wake of what we’ve wrought in our acts of uncharity and unkindness. We’ll recall that there are moral consequences to our individual decisions, small and large. We’ll acknowledge, and probably resist, and, hopefully, finally accept our need for repentance, which means not only feeling sorry but also, asking for forgiveness and, where possible, repairing the harm we’ve done. Until we have repented, the path remains crooked, the tracks remain blocked, and the way of the Lord is obscured.
Second, we’ll see people. (What a novel notion.) We’ll notice the person in front of us. We’ll look at her rather than through her. We’ll recognize that she inhabits this world, just like us. That God inhabits her, just like us. Once we see her, we’ll never again be able to mistake her as a means to our end, as a statistic, as an obstacle to be avoided or overcome. We’ll see that she is a child of God, and so is he, and so are they. All the calculus is computed differently once we see that this is true.
And third, when we lift our heads, when we open our ears, when we raise our eyes to the horizon, we’ll ache in wonder at the beauty of the world that, in every moment, God creates. It will leave us breathless, and humble, and grateful. We will grieve for the world’s brokenness and rejoice in its light. And then the path will straighten. The track will clear.
The Washington Post concludes its story about violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, hidden in plain sight beside the shoe shine stand in that D.C. subway station, playing divine music as thousands pass by unaware, in this way: “The fiddler’s movements remain fluid and graceful; he seems so apart from his audience—unseen, unheard, otherworldly—that you find yourself thinking that he’s not really there. A ghost. Only then do you see it: He is the one who is real. They are the ghosts.”
This is Advent. The one who is Really Real is coming, fluid and graceful, to make all things new. We will not pass by unaware. We’ll not fall prey to indifference, inertia, and the dingy, gray rush of lie. In our blessed fragility, our ghost-like transience in this world, we’ll lift our heads. We’ll pause to hear the music. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
[iii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/pearls-before-breakfast-can-one-of-the-nations-great-musicians-cut-through-the-fog-of-a-dc-rush-hour-lets-find-out/2014/09/23/8a6d46da-4331-11e4-b47c-f5889e061e5f_story.html. All details of the experiment comes from this article.