The Washington Post made an experiment on context, perception and priorities: What would happen if something good catches us “unprepared”? Would people appreciate beauty at unexpected time in an unexpected place?
They asked Joshua Bell, one of the best violinists in the world, to perform anonymously, just like any other street player. Would people tell the difference? Would they appreciate and recognize quality? Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, guessed that 35 to 40 people would recognize the quality of the performance. Would they appreciate it? He figured, people could give about $ 150.
Joshua Bell’s talent reaches 1000 $ per minute, but this time he agreed to be part of this experiment. He performed with his most cherished violin, a Stradivarius handcrafted in 1713, reported to cost around 3.5 million dollars. At 7:51 a.m., on the 12 of January, 2007, at the exit of L’Enfant Plaza in Washington DC, he interpreted for 43 minutes the finest and most elegant music ever composed.
The video tape of the event showed that a total of 1070 people passed by. Not even for a second he got a crowed. Only seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around for at least a minute and 27 gave a total of 32 $. So much for appreciating a historical performance.
So what does this experiment have to do with Christmas? Simple, enjoying goodness and quality depends on our disposition. Aquinas thought that goodness depends on disposition. A superior glass of whiskey can be very good for an appreciating adult and have devastating effects for a 3 year old child. Perceiving goodness or beauty is a matter of disposition. God being the supreme beauty and goodness is no different. Objective excellence is simply ignored when disposition is lacking.
The introduction of Jesus in the gospels have a common denominator: the world is “indisposed” to receive God as one of us. John tells it openly, “He came to his own domain and his own people did not accept him” (Jn 1:11) because “men have shown they prefer darkness to the light” (Jn 3:19). The gospel of Luke refers to this in a more symbolic way, Jesus was born in a manger because there was “no room for them” in the inn (Lk 2:7). The gospel of Matthew gives us the most dramatic version: the desire of Herod to kill Jesus (Mt 2:13). This rejection will only get worse as Jesus’ ministry progresses and will peak at the cry “Crucify him”. From birth to death the life of Jesus is marked by rejection.
The eruption of God in the human world resembles that cold morning at Washington DC. The world is too busy to pay notice to invaluable excellence for no price. It seems that for God to make himself visible He should do what celebrities do: Announce his performance to a selected group of fans and charge for it. Free, unassuming performance for the man in the street will go unnoticed.
God knows it and still He sticks to giving up his “celebrity status”, wants to be known for who He is. Will God’s performance be wasted for falling into the oblivion of the rabble?
The gospels reveals God’s plan. God will dispose the “undisposed”. The shepherds were not precisely the people most prepared to detect the God’s subtle presence in the child Jesus, but they receive a tip-off from heaven. Of all people, they are informed of the extraordinary performance. They are given a sign: a child in manger.
The magi were foreigners and strangers to God’s dealings in the history of Israel. However they read the sign of the star and came to discover the historical uniqueness of the moment.
Likewise, John Baptist’s mission was to prepare the unprepared. The voice in the wilderness had to announce that something “bigger than him” was already happening, but a change, indeed a conversion, that is a disposition was needed to appreciate it.
God had started to play the best composition ever played. The God who began everything is now communicating his wisdom and love in a way affordable to anyone. There is a catch though. Those must bother to stop and listen.
The church has always maintained a contemplative tradition and, indeed even a state of life for people who renounce to all the worries of the world to devote the rest of their lives to contemplation. In a hyperactive world and church, they remind us that pausing and listening to God’s beautiful performance is a privilege accessible to all who have the courage to give up their mundane worries.
It is ironical that “preparing” for Christmas today means to increase our busyness in one thousand activities. Preparing for Christmas should be about forgetting the daily frenzies, look for the tell-tale signs of God’s music, and simply pause to listen. That is a privilege that only those disposed to hear it will perceive. Like the shepherds, we have been chosen. We have been given the signs of where and when God is performing. Will we dare to stop and listen?