One of my all-time favourite compositions is Edward Elgar’s Op. 36 (popularly known as Enigma Variations). This piece is a love story where each movement is a tribute to one of Elgar’s friends. It is complex, playful, and heartfelt; it rouses my heart, my memory, and my imagination all at the same time. Starting when I was 14, my high-school concert band played an arrangement of the adagio movement, “Nimrod,” all the time as a warm-up piece. Eventually, the constant repetition started to dampen my enthusiasm and love for the music. It became a running joke in the band, so much so that we started to call boring or annoying bandmates “Nimrods.” When I asked my band director why we kept on returning to this piece, she said, “I want us to grow into it.”
I thought her response was enigmatic; I now think it wise.
Often I hear similar complaints about our liturgical year: “Repeating the same stories every year gets tiresome and boring.” Perhaps we are to “grow into” our liturgical year. Like excellent music, the Christian story has the ability to rouse our emotions, our intellect, and our creativity all at once (even while boring us on occasion). As with Elgar’s music, we can “play the piece” a thousand times and each time notice something new, imagine something different, or totally mess it up. Think of your favourite (or least favourite) biblical story. I do not recall the first time I heard the story of the Transfiguration (not one of my favourites), but I remember the time a Sunday-school student asked me, “How did they know it was Moses and Elijah? Did they have picture Bibles back then?” I remember another time, when I was dazzled by the reflection of the sun on a snowy hill, and my feelings of loneliness were transfigured into feelings of awe. Our Christian story grows in complexity and meaning every time we interact with it (even when unenthusiastically), because it is our story. It needs us to bring it to life; without us, it is words in a book or notes on a page.
At the last congregation I served, on my last Sunday, the music director brought Enigma Variations to life for me once again during the postlude. As I listened, I flashed back to my high-school concert band (and to the adjudication room where I had botched the piece on a playing test), and I felt in my heart the words of Jesus, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 18:20). The music was helping me make meaning of that particular moment (saying goodbye to a congregation) and connect what I was experiencing to the story of my life. I realized that, as a musician, I needed this music way more than it needed me. Decades later, I was finally “growing into it.”
I wonder if the same can be said for our faith and the liturgical year. As Christians, perhaps we need to relive, relearn, and repeat our story constantly so that we can grow deeper and deeper into our faith.
I will never have the opportunity to go back and play “Nimrod” again with my high-school band knowing what I know now, but thankfully, if I wait another season, I might be blessed with the chance to replay the Christian story with new depth, insight, and growth.
And for this, I am grateful.
Alydia Smith is Program Coordinator, Worship, Music, and Spirituality. This article orginally appeared in Gathering magazine, Advent/Christmas/Epiphany 2016-2017.