Thursday, December 30, 2010

Elves At The TH

One of my Christmas ornaments looks like this:

 But this year, it wasn't true! In addition to Jocelyn, Senior of the Junior Elves, the wands of Shay and Maya sparkled in the TH; and Jenna wove her spell in a few special events where she managed to fill glasses, help serve dinners and in general keep us all very entertained.


There was also Carol's granddaughter, who decorated the tree - the middle of the tree ...

At the other end of the Elf Herself spectrum was Brenda, BA, Doreen, Jackie - and Norma, who helped me out at every single event.

No wonder the TH seems to be a magical place!
We made it!

Monday, December 27, 2010

After and Before

This was the title of Dad's message on Boxing Day Sunday. He found these words in Luke chapter 1, where it sets the framework for the time after Mary and Joseph were engaged but before they were married ...

What life-changing, history-changing, world-changing events took place in that space of time!

And that was because between the after and the before, God got involved - in Mary's life, in Joseph's.

Think about Mordecai, the courageous uncle of Esther in the Old Testament, who refused to bow down when Haman passed by. Haman was second in power; and when this upstart refused to bow to him, Haman in his fury started to plot to kill not only Mordecai but also all the Jews in the land of Persia. When it happened again, Haman built a gallows on which to hang Mordecai personally.

Shortly before this, Queen Vashti had fallen out of favour with Ahasuerus and he had selected - from all the fair maidens of the land! - Esther, Mordecai's cousin whom he had adopted and raised as his own daughter, to be his new consort.

One night King Ahasuerus could not sleep. So he began to peruse the court records and historical documents. In them he read that there had been a plot on his life which was foiled by Mordecai, who in turn had never been recognized or rewarded for his service to the King. 

Ahasuerus called Haman to him: "What should be done for the man whom the King wishes to honour?" he enquired. Haman, all excited because of course he thought the King was speaking of him, said that one of the King's own robes should be given to the man; he should be mounted on the King's own horse; and a herald should lead him around proclaiming, "See how the King treats someone he wishes to honour!"

"You do this for Mordecai," Ahasuerus commanded.

And at Esther's feast for her new husband and Haman, she informed the King of Haman's plot to kill the Jews - and revealed that she herself was Jewish.

After the gallows were built but before Haman could put his plan into action, God became involved. A king could not sleep and asked for something to read.

Haman was executed on his own gallows.

Consider the thief on the cross, Dad mused. After he had been tried, convicted and strung up for execution, but before he actually drew his last breath, God got involved. In death, the thief heard words life-changing for him.

The crowd crowed vindictively, "He saved others; Himself He cannot save."

Jesus, pushed to the point of pain unendurable, groaned, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

And the thief heard, "He saved others ... Father, forgive them ..." His eyes were opened and with some of his last breaths he gasped out, "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom." 

Jesus responded without hesitation, "This day you will be with me in Paradise."

How powerful the space between those two words can be!

Dad's life was changed because of such an A&B moment. In 1952, independently farming and recreationally boxing and enjoying life quite a bit despite the hardship of the times, he had decided to go to a cattle auction and purchase a Hereford bull. One particular day he was helping his brother dock sheep tails; the auction was the next day in Lacombe.

Suddenly his knife blade slipped and sliced deep into his thigh. He was rushed to the hospital where he had to spend ten days due to the severity of the cut. After he had made the decision to purchase the bull and pursue farming in a serious way, but before he went to that sale, God got involved. Lying in the hospital, God called Dad to serve Him.

That fall, Dad found himself in Bible college - he had the money for it because he hadn't purchased the bull; in 1959, he headed out to India. And the rest is history ...

On December 27, 2009, Dad's dearly beloved elder brother, Gordon Walter Ironside, drew his last breath.

Gordon (he never wanted us to call him "Uncle Gordon"; if we had to use an honourific, this extremely modest man would tease, we could call him "Old Gordon") was a man of quiet faith and dignity and humility. He died the way he lived, causing the least amount of inconvenience that he could to the medical staff and to his family and friends.

But how great a hole he has left in our Christmas celebration and in our hearts! He was the one who we knew loved all of us and remembered all of our birthdays. Without fail he would call each of his siblings, his nephews and nieces, and a host of friends and relatives to wish us each year. He was quick with a joke or a helping hand, and slow to anger. 

And now we hover in the period between after our dear one's entrance into the presence of the One he loved more than anyone else and before we see him again. None of us who is left to mourn his absence has any idea exactly how long this time will stretch.

But we can be sure that God, who loves us more than Gordon did and who cares about even the feelings of our infirmities - the echo of the sound of His heart breaking as He watched His Son hang on that cross next to that thief still reverberates in His ears some 2000 years later - this same God Himself will finally wipe tears from eyes "and there will be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying; neither shall there be any more pain" (Revelation 21:4) ... because in this capsule between after and before, He promises to "make all things new" (verse 5). Until before, He promises He will never leave us nor forsake us.

Until before, He promises to be involved.

Gordon Walter Ironside
November 15, 1929 - December 27, 2009

Saturday, December 25, 2010

"All Things New"

For unto us
a Child is born
unto us
a Son is given
and the government
shall be upon
His shoulders
And His name shall be called
the Mighty God
the Everlasting Father
the Prince of Peace

Friday, December 24, 2010

"Where Are The Elizabeths?"

This Tuesday morning at the Manor Dad chose as his devotional the title, "Where are the Elizabeths?"

He was, of course, referencing Elizabeth, the wife of Zachariah and the mother of John the Baptist.

Elizabeth is one of the secondary players in the story of the Nativity; but it was to her that Mary turned in her first days of blinding joy, of blind panic, over what was to happen to her, what was to become of her.  

The following thoughts are taken from Luke chapter 1, verses 38-44, and also verses 57-58.

Verse 38 leaves us with Mary saying to the angel, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to your word." And the angel vanished.

And Mary, this innocent young teenager, was left with no one to talk to, no one of whom she could ask questions.

But then she remembered someone. Verse 39 and 40 tell us that "in those days" - that poor girl had been fretting and stewing and rejoicing and trying to come to terms with the message of the angel for a few days! - Mary went into the hill country. Her destination was Zachariah's house.

She went "with haste," we are told. She was a teenager, impulsive, uncertain, wanting to get away from her home town where everyone knew everyone's business, too scared to tell her fiance, desperate to find someone who would listen to her, someone who would understand. As Dad said, she was not going with gladness; she was going with need.

Now Zachariah was a priest married to the daughter of a priestly family - maybe not the household that a girl who was single, scared and pregnant would normally run to for help and encouragement. Mary knew, though, that Elizabeth would understand.

Where are the Elizabeths today who will understand a situation, a person in need? What do they look like?

These are the characteristics of Elizabeth that Dad pondered in our study:

  • She was a woman who understood the need of a person (v. 41): Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting and the baby she was carrying, John, leaped in her womb. She knew this was not girl coming to visit an elderly relative for a mere chat.
  • She was a woman of spiritual perception (v. 42): "Blessed are you among women," she exclaimed to Mary, "and blessed is the fruit of your womb."
  • She was a woman of humility (v. 43): She is amazed and grateful that this privilege - the privilege of the mother of the Lord Jesus coming to visit her - has been given to her.
  • She was a woman of encouragement (v. 44): She goes on to tell Mary that as soon as she heard Mary's voice, the child in her womb leaped for joy. Mary needed to hear some words affirming her, celebrating her. Here she was a young girl, unmarried and pregnant. Most adults would be telling her to be quiet, to stay hidden. Her family possibly would have disowned her. Joseph had the right to stone her if he believed she had been cheating on him. She was terrified. But Elizabeth talked about joy! And the reason she could do so is that her joy was rooted in God.
  • She was a woman who had good relationships with her neighbours and relatives (vv. 57, 58): When Elizabeth rejoiced, the neighbours rejoiced.

One other thing that occurred to me while listening to Dad was this:

  • She used her position for good (v. 42): Everyone lived in very close proximity with their neighbours in those ancient cities. Zachariah was one of the select priests who were eligible to draw for the privilege of entering the temple's Holy of Holies area - a privilege permitted only once in a priest's lifetime.  He was well respected, a force of authority in the community.  Everyone knew that he and Elizabeth lived lives above reproach. And yet here was Elizabeth proclaiming in "a loud voice" to this shrinking, trembling girl who people would soon start realising was pregnant-and-unmarried, "Blessed are you among women!" The neighbours, spying and eavesdropping on the goings-on at the priest's house, would nod sagely and say, "If it's good enough for Elizabeth, it's good enough for me ..."
Where are the Elizabeths who can minister to the overwhelmed Marys in our community today? The Elizabeths who will understand the person, who will perceive their need? The Elizabeths of true humility? The Elizabeths of encouragement - the ones who will strengthen their own hearts and the hearts of those around them?

The word translated "speak comfortably" often can be translated "speak to the heart." Elizabeth cut through generations and social mores and preconceived ideas and instant judgment and spoke comfort and encouragement and strength directly into the heart of this nervous teenager who in reality could have been just 15 years old, the age of my little Jocelyn who works so hard at the TH every weekend.

There are many Marys who are crying out to be heard, to be understood, to be encouraged. When the rug seems to have been pulled out from under their feet, they need an Elizabeth to laugh with them, to weep with them, to listen, to give sage advice. They need to be able to sit at this senior woman's feet and learn from her, as Mary did for three months before she finally felt ready to return to her own little village.

I can think of some Marys off the top of my head: there's my Mary whose own family has all but rejected her and she has no mother that she can count on to keep her loved and grounded and encouraged through one of the darkest years of her life. Her losses have been incalculable - the loss of a precious father-in-law, of a baby never born, of trust, of the future she had planned. The uncertainty of the new year looms large for her.

And then there's my Mary who wants to be self-sufficient, who doesn't want to show any sign of weakness, but who has to live with great burdens that sometimes threaten to crack the maquillage cleverly painted on her face, that beautiful face that very few are permitted to catch glimpses of beneath the surface self-containment. 

There's my Mary whose marriage is shaky at best, but who has a child and who will sacrifice almost anything to do what is best for her child.

I have a Mary who's not sure exactly what to do with her life, not sure even who she is. There's a Mary who thinks that her life is over because she frittered a decade or so of it away.

I have a Mary about to embark on a journey to another continent, wrestling with the changes this will bring into her life.

And I have Elizabeths in my life too: Myrna, and Brenda, and Geri, and Doreen, and Naomi, and Irma, women who have taken me into their homes and their lives and hearts and who have listened to me and laughed and cried with me. Women who have prayed with me and pray for me.

Women who model the kind of love that Elizabeth showed Mary that day and in the three months that followed when Mary stayed with her and learnt what it meant to be a woman who would truly be able to live those beautiful words she uttered to the angel on that fateful day, "Be it unto me according to thy word."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Season of Waiting: Week 4 - Where It All Starts

Christmas is just around the corner and I haven't been near a mall - and I don't even care! But I feel so laden with good things in what I've learnt and been given over the past few weeks that I honestly don't need anything from any shop to make this a wonderful Christmas. 

It was my beautiful Krista who set me on the journey for Advent this year, with an email asking if I would do a spot of proofreading for the truly worshipful Advent booklet she created for church. It is her assignment of subjects I have followed, and I have derived such richness and insight from pondering the readings and praying the prayers.

I have in this month received the following gifts:

Hope - because the One in whom we hope can see the end from the beginning
Peace - when activity swirls all around me
Joy - from appreciating the motivation behind the kindnesses shown me

And now we come back to the beginning. None of this would have been possible without examining the motivation behind the whole Christmas story.

"For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes on Him should not perish but have everlasting life." (John 3:16)

It all started with love.

Dad spoke of this at our last Tuesday gathering at the Manor. He said that Christmas is first and foremost about God's love. Behind the incarnation - the Nativity scene, God coming down in flesh as a little baby and spending His first night in a manger - is God's love.

The other John 3:16 - this time, I John 3:16 - written probably about 90 years after the night of Jesus' birth, says this:

"Hereby perceive we the love of God, because He laid down His life for us ..."

Despite all that we do that falls short, all that we are that is not great, God loved us enough to be born as one of us and enough also to die for us. As Dad put it, "God's love that cannot change, cannot cease, cannot be measured, gave us His very best - His only Son."

We have hope because of this love.
We have peace because of this love.
We have joy because of this love.

Is it any wonder that the poet who wrote the great "love chapter" of the Bible, I Corinthians 13, said with such conviction that he could be an eloquent speaker, he could be a prophet and a philosopher, he could have enormous faith, he could be a great philanthropist, he could even become a martyr ... but all of it would be absolutely pointless, absolutely worthless, if it were not motivated by love.

Dad remarked, "We well know a gift is often measured in worth by the spirit behind the giving of the gift."

So at Christmas, when I open my presents and I eat the delicious meal and I spend time with those I love the most in this world, I want to be ever conscious of the love behind every gift, every gesture.

And I want to be sure not to lose sight that all of it - no matter how wonderful - would be absolutely pointless, absolutely worthless, if it were not for the love of God for me.

The greatest of these truly is love.
Wednesday Night at the TH - the Christmas 2010 Edition

When I think of my week's regular bright spots, this gathering is high on my list. Mum and Dad started the study in 1999, and Mum and Dad would always arrange a Christmas dinner for the group.

This year Dad, BA and Debs provided the groceries for the meal, and Brenda, Rose, Dianna, Ben, Dad, BA and Leona helped with the preparation because I'm still not feeling 100%, and because they too love this group.

This year Thelma, Mum, Marion, Dick and Tina were joined by Bill. I hope that somehow they knew about our dinner. I hope they had a little reunion of their own ...

Our circle has been broken, but others have come to reinforce it; and one day we will all be reunited in a place more lovely than the TH!

Thank you, my dear friends, for this wonderful year of fellowship:

Dad, George, Leona, Ralph, Betty, Joyce, Charlotte, Marjorie, Ted, Brenda, Charles, Rose, Bob, Dianna, Ben, Renata, Lynda, BA, Ed, Ruth Anne, and our beautiful Anna Grace.

I can't wait to see you all again next year!

Kitchen help ...

 Thanks, all!

Dinner ...

Happy Christmas!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Season of Waiting: Week 3 - "Just an Old Pair of Socks"

Worship Arts Coordinator Krista Ewert's notes for this past third Advent Sunday:

"Today, we light the candle of Joy. This candle reminds us that amidst our toils and struggles Jesus is the source of our joy. It reminds us that despite all of the suffering in the world, the war, the discontentment, through belief in Jesus Christ, His saving work on the cross and His resurrection from the dead, we can live in the light of God’s grace with joy."

This week Dad and I had to go to Red Deer for a chiropractor appointment with the genius who is Dr. Lyle Smith. Miss Betty, our dear old friend, asked if she could come along as she really needed an adjustment; of course we were delighted to be able to take her with us.

Betty is almost completely blind: she can see shadowy figures moving in close proximity to her but she can't distinguish people unless she hears their voices.

And Betty is one of the quickest people I know. Here are some Betty-isms:

  • Upon bumping into my little Alana at the hospital one day, Betty asked her if she was married yet. "Not yet," replied  Alana. "Well," said Betty, "It's better to be a Miss than a Mistake ..."
  • Once  Dad was speaking on a Wednesday night and he talked about how as a child, when everything was so dusty and brown, he decided he hated brown. "I said then that I was going to marry a redhead with green eyes - and I ended up marrying a girl with brown hair and brown eyes." "Aww, Allan," piped up Betty, "you should have waited for me!"
  • She told us on the way to Red Deer that there are signs on each bedroom window at her seniors home that say not to open the windows in the winter. "But it gets so hot and stuffy in there, and besides which I'm blind and I can't read the sign, so I open mine ... I'm a bit of a rebel, you know ..."
Betty worked for years up north in DeChambeau Lake region, and kids she had looked after decades ago still call her every week for advice, for comfort, for grounding. For a long time she was provided with room and board and $10 a month. Needless to say, she has not accumulated many treasures on earth. But this Tuesday, as we drove up to Red Deer she discovered that in my haste I had neglected to put on socks. Betty is a great believer in being bundled up against the cold and always checks to make sure Dad and us girls have on our coats. "As it happens, I always carry a spare pair of clean socks with me," she piped up. I want you to put them on and get your feet warm."'

"But I'll probably lose them," I demurred.

Well, you just keep them then," she replied. "I wanted to do something for you this Christmas, and now I can give you a pair of socks to keep your feet warm."

"You need them, Betty," I tried to protest.

"You need them more," she flashed back. "they're not new - they're just an old pair of socks, but they're clean, and then I will have given you something for Christmas!"

How could I refuse? I accepted the sock roll she dug out of her handbag, and she stumbled off for her appointment.

As the socks unrolled, I choked back laughter and tears. The sock on the outside of the roll was purple; the inside sock, however, was grey with red toe and heel ...

"Are you going to wear them?" my Dad asked me quizzically.

"I'm going to wear them and treasure them," I replied. When Betty came back a few minutes later she asked me if I had put on the socks. "I have, and I love them - they'll always remind me of you!"

Her dear old face softened, the blankness in her eyes superseded by joy. "I'm so happy you like them; I wanted to give you something you would like!" she exclaimed with evident pleasure.

On Wednesday was our TH Bible study Christmas dinner, and the ladies came early to help. Brenda, Rose, Dianna and Leona bustled about taking care of doing dishes, setting the table, helping with the food prep and getting everything out on time. Ben carved the turkey. Dad made the turnips. Dad, BA and Deborah actually provided the turkey and the vegetables and all I had to do was cook them - "We're so glad to be able to do this for you," they told me. (Pictures to come of that evening!)

Then on Thursday morning Angela called to say there was an opening at the eye doctor's clinic at 11. Could I make it?

I could, and did. Dr Martin Lee examined my eyes and figured out a new prescription for contacts and glasses. Martin and his wife and son love my cheesecakes and he has purchased several of them for special occasions. When it came time for me to pay for my appointment, there was no charge. "That's wrong," I protested. "Look," said Maris, "he wrote that down himself and initialed it. No charge."

I was dumbfounded and unsure of what to do. Susan, the glasses specialist, pulled me aside. "It's easy to think that joy lies only in giving, Karyn," she said gently. "Sometimes it's in receiving. When you allow yourself to accept from other people who want to give to you, you are giving them the gift of joy and blessing in return."

So on Friday when Don and Norma said they were going to drive me to Red Deer to help me do my food run for the weekend, I gratefully accepted. And when Norma and BA and Don volunteered their time and effort to make the Legion Christmas dinner on Friday night a magical evening, I gladly welcomed them. And this evening when Jackie showed up to help me serve the Christmas dinner, I hugged her thankfully.

In this week starting off with the Advent candle representing joy being lit, my eyes were opened to the joy I can give just by stepping back and allowing others to minister to me.

But the joy I received when I saw how much they appreciated the chance to do something for someone else in this self-sufficient old world was immeasurable.

And on this third week of Advent I calculated that almost all these people who were being blessed while they blessed me could trace their joy back through the peace that passes all understanding - peace that trumps frailness of body and sorrow and pain. And they know this peace because they have experienced firsthand the hope that God offers those who trust in Him.

Just an old pair of socks, maybe, but there was an invitation to joy rolled up inside them!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Digital Story of the Nativity

Thanks to Bronwyn, who just sent me this link. Click on the play button below - the video is just under three minutes long ...

Times indeed change; but the message remains the same ...

(I particularly chuckled over the "Me and Gaspar bought ours here" at 2:18!) 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Welcome to the Casbah!
Dinner at the Casbah

It's a beautiful spot for a TH staff event - but not so good for phone-camera pictures, apparently!

Oh well ... in the TH tradition of shortest to tallest, I want to thank the following for a wonderful evening:

Exquisite decor, cleverly created to be
movable for parties like this ...
Maya, Emily, Jocelyn, Krista, Anita, Karla, Deborah, Angela, BA, Brenda, Cathryn, Dad, Jackie, Julia, Steve, Barry, Curtis, Matthew, Brent - and Andy, who joined us at the Messiah.

And enormous thanks go out to Rani and Carrie Drissi, the owners of the Casbah, for the delicious meal and a delightfully rich experience crammed into such a short time frame! 

Pouring the mint tea

The appetizer: Khoubiza Brioua

My favourite chicken tajine

A magical meal - thank you,
Rani and Carrie!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Season of Waiting: Week 2 - Tea House Messiah

From the CPO website:

Handel's Messiah

Friday, December 3, 2010 – 7:30pm
Saturday, December 4, 2010 – 7:30pm
EPCOR CENTRE's Jack Singer Concert Hall

Jean-Marie Zeitouni, Conductor

Karina Gauvin, Soprano
Daniela Mack, Mezzo-Soprano
Benjamin Butterfield, Tenor
Michael Dean, Bass-Baritone

Calgary Philharmonic Chorus

Hallelujah! Handel’s Messiah returns with the message of peace and hope that has inspired audiences for centuries. With an outstanding cast of soloists and the CPO debut of Canada’s young maestro, Jean-Marie Zeitouni, this will be a truly uplifting performance.
For me, the Christmas season begins with the slim, elegant figure of Ivars Taurins, the master Baroque conductor, raising his baton - in complete control of the chorus, the orchestra, the soloists and the audience - and releasing the orchestra to begin playing the first few notes of the Overture to Handel's Messiah. The place instantly hushes, and the tenor strides out to centre stage confidently. I settle into my seat, my heart and my mind all quivery with anticipation of a cultural, musical and spiritual feast elevated and hallowed above almost anything in the previous year.

I'd missed the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus's performance for the past two years: in 2008 Dad and I were in Pennsylvania; and last year a blizzard raged, forcing me to relinquish my ticket to Cathryn who graciously went in my place with my dear Mary.

This year, at Brent's instigation, I was taking my TH staff and helpers to the Saturday evening performance of the Messiah as our Christmas event. There would be 21 of us in total. My plan was that we would close the TH at 3 p.m. and then those of us from Three Hills would drive to Calgary where we would meet those of us from Calgary and Lethbridge. First we would go to the Casbah, one of my favourite Moroccan restaurants. And after a lovely meal of salad composed of artfully seasoned corn, carrots and beets, to be followed with a Mediterranean spinach appetizer enrobed with delicate phyllo pastry and crowned by my favourite tajine entree - chicken with almonds, potatoes and prunes - accompanied by mint tea, all consumed in a refined atmosphere, we would make our leisurely way to the Jack Singer Concert Hall for the performance of the season. It would be an evening of culture and unmitigated delight for us all.

So much for the best-laid plans ... 

I was exhausted from the previous weeks of not being up to full health and strength. Of course the TH was crazy busy that day; we finally threw people out at 3:15. Five hours earlier, one of our anticipated group had bowed out of the evening, and I couldn't find anyone to take her place at that late time. At 3:35 Curt and I were on our phones, calling a couple of girls to see if they were on their way to the TH or if they had forgotten.

At 4:50 we got a call from BA, who was already at the restaurant: "Where are you? They thought you were going to be here at 4:30!"

We hurled ourselves into the first available parking spots we could find, praying it wasn't a bus zone, praying the meter dudes wouldn't nail us, and clambered over the icy piles of snow crammed into the sidewalk. Then we plunged downstairs into the cavern-like entrance to the Casbah.

They had it all set up for us and were ready to go. We huddled around tables pushed together. Water glasses were filled; hands hastily washed in the time-honoured ritual; and the salad was served. The food was delicious, toasts were made, people with food sensitivities were cautioned and the extra dinner packed up to go. Conversation flowed easily between all these wonderful people who are the core of the TH but we ate in haste, conscious of the party behind us who had booked the whole of the Casbah for the rest of the evening and had started to arrive early. The mint tea was everything I had hoped my kids would find it.

During the appetizer course I had a brief text conversation:

Someone didn't show. Spare ticket to the Messiah. Starts at 7:30. Wanna come?
- Seriously?
Sbsolutely [sic]
- Bus leaves at 6:32. Meet you outside the Singer

We trooped out en masse to our vehicles with catches of conversation floating in the air as our caravan got ready to pull away:

"Follow me!"
"Can I get a coffee over there? I'm desperate for coffee!"
"I'm going to park outside so I don't have to pay for parking ..."
"Try for the parking under the building!"
"Am I underdressed?" "Tuck your shirt in." "But it's not supposed to be tucked in!"
"I have to go to the bathroom again ..."
"The fan's not coming on in the car - don't anyone breathe!"

After losing a car or two and much cell-phone interaction, we all eventually met up in the lobby of the great Jack Singer auditorium, and it was time to hand out tickets:

"Mine says Senior on it! I'm not a senior!"
"But they told me we could take our coffee in with us!"
"What should I do with my coat?"
"Are they assigned seats or can we sit anywhere we like?"
"Has anyone got cough candies?"

Nevertheless, five minutes before the performance was due to start, we were all seated. Perched in rows B and C high in the centre of the auditorium, we had a bird's eye view of the stage and the pipes for the Carthy organ.

After the speeches and acknowledgments Cenek Vrba, the longtime CPO concertmaster, strode onto the stage to tune the orchestra: 

"What's he doing?"
"Is he the conductor?"
"Is this what it's going to sound like the whole time?"

And then Cenek settled in his seat, the lights dimmed, and onto the stage bounded this golden lab pup of a conductor accompanied by the more stately soloists:

"Why is everyone dressed in black except for those two ladies?"
"Why are those two guys sitting on the side over there?"
"What's that weird-looking instrument?"

Jean-Marie Zeitouni raised his baton and I closed my eyes, sighing in anticipation of the first measured notes of the work washing over me, calming my soul.

But before I knew it the initial eight bars were over. My eyes snapped open. Jean-Marie was plying his baton with vigour, galloping through the Overture like it was a commercial break that could be fast-forwarded. I noted, somewhat disgruntledly, that the orchestra was thinned down as well - no majestic, full-bodied dramatic passages for us this evening, I griped to myself.

The person sitting behind me started to hum along to the music, keeping time on the back of Maya's and my seats. I thought of my friend Jane. I was glad she wasn't here. I wished she were.

And from the loge seats above the stage a hot pink piece of paper fluttered slowly downward like a lost traveller who couldn't quite remember how to get to his destination. An audible exhaling of collective breath was heard when it finally reached the floor without landing on any of the musicians.

Then Benjamin Butterfield, one of Mary's and my favourite tenors, rose from his chair. While the orchestra raced to the end of the Overture he walked unhurriedly to the centre of the stage; took his position; and slowly, deliberately, looked at each section of the audience, from the floor to the mezzanine to the upper balconies and loges.

And at exactly the right moment he opened his mouth and with the greatest of kindness and sympathy he sang:

"Comfort ye ..."

And with those words he pulled it all together. He drew us - all of us in the room - together.

During the intermission the conversation waged fast and furious in my little coterie:

"Can I go get something to drink?"
"Was that an hour? It seemed like ten minutes!"
"I love you, babe!" "You too!"
"Wow - did you check out the hip-action of the conductor?!"
"Where's Maya?" "With Cath!"
"I feel underdressed ..."
"I'm going to ride the escalator, if that's okay!"
"I thought we had to stand! Did they miss that part?"
"The soprano just looked down - she's not engaging the audience ..."
"Do you truly love Butterfield? More than Heppner?"
"Man, the conductor has the most fun - I wish I could be him!"
"How are you really feeling these days?"
"Where's that found [in the scriptures]?!"
"What was that weird instrument?"
"Did you see the coloured lights on the pipes?"
"They have ice cream here!"
"I'm so tired - I'm enjoying it but I'm fighting sleep the whole time ..."
"Okay, two-minute warning: let's go back in!"
"Where's Cath?"

As I settled into my seat and the music started up again, one of our group dropped her water bottle - her metal water bottle - onto the floor, where it tumbled down to the next row. The person behind me tapped the orchestra into rhythm again on my seat back. My kids nudged each other and pointed.

I thought to myself, "This isn't the Messiah I was expecting at all ..."

And then it struck me: this is the truest performance of the Messiah I had ever attended. This is a small reflection of what it must have been like that night Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Forget "Silent Night" - who wrote that anyway?! Bethlehem would have been alight with activity, chatter, confusion. There would have been people who had never been before and everything would have seemed strange, a little bit foreign, a little bit off-kilter. The weary adults might have been rattled, but the kids would have thought everything was exciting and new, and they would have been commenting on all that they saw.

"And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying - Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth."

What about "Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o'er the plain"? The word "host" actually means army. And the account doesn't say they sang; it says "... praising God and saying". The shepherds  - the recipients of the numinous proclamation - were terrified, certainly not immediately moved to provide harmony to the angels' supposed song.

After the angel moment was over these gruff, smelly men would have charged off into the night looking for a stable. There would have been more than one stable in Bethlehem - it's entirely possible that they woke up other people in their search for the stable with the new baby in it. And when they got to the innkeeper's stable, they would have jostled their way into the cramped quarters, feeling quite at home around the animals but strangely awkward in the presence of this baby with His mother and Joseph.

The inn itself would have been teeming with people: after all, if Mary and Joseph had been told there was no room in the inn, there would have been many more after them seeking lodging and meeting the same answer. The courtyard would have been loud and chaotic. Hawkers would have been out selling food and drink; infants would have been fussing; animals would have needed tending to after their journeys.

And the feeling of foreign oppression would have hung over everything like a pall. They were not in Bethlehem for the celebration of their Messiah's birth, after all - they were there for a census which would result in more accountability, more taxes.

More oppression.

"For unto us a child is born"?

This wasn't the Messiah they were expecting at all.

In Part Two Benjamin Butterfield mourned, "Thy rebuke hath broken His heart," and my own heart ached. Nothing - NOTHING - would have compared with this moment for Jesus as He faced His death.

Not the oblivious neglect of the disciples as they slept while Jesus prayed.

Not the smarmy kiss of Judas as he betrayed Him.

Not the dragging into court and the interrogation.

Not the crowds screeching "Crucify Him!"

Not the denial - three times - by Peter.

Not the lashings.

Not the crown of thorns being jabbed into His head.

Not the spitting into His face. Not the scorn.

Not the cross, which He was by then too weak to be able to carry.

Not the nails pounding into His hands and feet.

Not the hanging, choking, on the cross.

Not even His mother, quietly weeping, eyes locked on her son.

Not the darkness falling on the land.

None of this would have even come close to being cut off, for the first time ever, from His Father. None of this, on its own or collectively, would have been enough to have done Him in. But His heart was ultimately broken by His Father turning away. "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" are surely the saddest words ever recorded.

"Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto His sorrow," Butterfield observed quietly.

This was not the Messiah they were expecting at all.

And just when all seemed too awful to be able to bear, "But Thou didst not leave His soul in hell, nor didst Thou suffer Thy holy one to see corruption," Karina Gauvin, the soprano, reassured us.

The first notes of "Hallelujah!" began, quietly, tentatively, like someone who has been lost and is now found but can't quite believe it yet. And then the music crescendoed and crescendoed in waves and we all surged to our feet. The trumpet rang out and the soloists sang, part of the chorus for a few blissful moments. The hip-action of the conductor exceeded all expectations. The chorus beamed and rocked, as much as a classical chorus can permit itself to rock. My kids' eyes were wide and shining.

When it was over, the crowd roared and whistled. The musicians, tapping their bows on the ground in approbation, were swept into a bow by the beaming conductor.

And finally, in the last number of Part Three when his arms were raised, high and motionless, above his head, everyone - orchestra, chorus, soloists, audience - hung suspended, at his mercy. No one coughed. No one whispered. No one moved.

In that moment of stillness I thought, this is it. Christ is born in a mucky stable and offered up to an imperfect world who can't appreciate the greatest gift it had ever been given. He is tortured, crucified, buried. He rises from the grave.

All of His life and interaction with people on earth was accompanied by pockets of movement, of messiness, of talking, laughing, questioning, commenting, bewilderment, grief, of His explaining, of our not understanding. There were always people around. It was never tidy.

"Behold, I show you a mystery," the bass had intoned moments earlier.

Through it all ran the steady thread of God's plan for our salvation, weaving all the jumble together into a magnificent tapestry.

Offering hope.

Heralding peace, what the second candle of the advent wreath symbolizes.

Jean-Marie Zeitouni's arms crashed down and the trumpet blared and the voices rang to the rafters:

"Amen! Amen!"

This was not the Messiah I was expecting at all. It was far, far more.