COLUMN: Ed Olfert — Jan. 9, 2014

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Ed Olfert
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Ed Olfert

The bulletin informed us that it was Epiphany Sunday. I suspect in that church, and in this readership, there are many, possibly most, who don’t have a clue what that means.

For me it meant, among other things, that we would be having a potluck after the worship service. Potlucks are always good things. We humbly pride ourselves that no one will go home hungry, whether they contributed or not. Like the loaves and fishes, there’s always enough. I’m pretty sure potlucks are in our Confession of Faith.

Epiphany is a $10 word, to be sure. A dusty and thick tome on the shelf suggests that Epiphany is “the time for commemorating the presentation of Christ to the world.” The Biblical story connected to that theme is that of the Wise Men, who represent the journey of the rulers of the nations to worship the God of Israel, complete with lavish gifts. Epiphany has also come to mean an “Aha!” moment, a time of new realization, a “light bulb over the head” experience. These two definitions can embrace each other, can become one.

As we held up that Epiphany theme, we also sang more carols. Some of us grouse that the season is too short, that we don’t get to sing those old familiar songs enough. And after all, on Sunday we had not yet completed the twelve days of Christmas.

I enjoy singing, singing the old carols. Coming from a relatively musical heritage, I usually delve into the bass line. I’m not particularly gifted or confident, but these familiar songs allow me to lean into them with some enthusiasm. My voice isn’t able to swoop down to the low notes with much power, but my imagination convinces me that I’m contributing mightily.

One of the songs that we sang on Sunday was “The First Noel.” As it does each time I hear it, this song triggered a memory.

A dozen or more years ago, in December, we went to Saskatchewan Penitentiary for the Person To Person Christmas banquet and program. This is an annual event,  and the volunteers frequently comment that this is the most significant evening in their holiday season. Inmates, meanwhile, state that this is the best event in their year. The evening includes a feast, paid for and prepared by inmates, and then a program of music, mostly supplied by folks from the community, but often also including some numbers from a band from the inside. The highlight is always a time of carol singing together, folks from inside and outside, raising their voices in the familiar songs. It’s striking to see the respect and awe in evidence from the “shunted aside” guys.

On that evening, 12 or more years ago, I recall that the event was held in a large room that was accessed by walking through the dome, out a back door, down a sidewalk, and up a long flight of stairs. “B (something or other) Upper was the name of this room, as I recall. It was huge, had very high ceilings, concrete block walls, a guard walkway around the top, lots of steel, and accented in institutional green colours.

I’m not complaining. The room served its purpose quite well. There was plenty of room, there were places for coats, there were washrooms, tables, chairs, and very important, a barred gate slid open to allow entry of the inmate crew who had prepared the meal. It was turkey with all the fixins’ and I delighted in the pride of the food crew as compliments were directed their way.

I can’t recall which inmate friend we were visiting that year. But a given is that we were astounded by the quantities consumed, and when that observation was made, we were told (I’m sure) that our friend hadn’t eaten a thing all day to properly enjoy this meal. It is also a given that we expressed feigned surprise, and suggested that we assumed inmates eat meals of this quality and variety every day. Guffaws followed.

After the meal, we were directed into half round rows, to begin the program. Again, I don’t recall who sang, who played, who spoke. I do recall that acoustically, the sound was like mud. I’ve had those things pointed out to me, and with my hearing issues, I can tell if the sound rings cleanly, or hits the walls and slides down like something a flying goose might leave behind. Before long, we came to the carol singing piece of the evening. And at some point, someone suggested “The First Noel,” the same song from our past Sunday service.

Close to us sat a young inmate, short, chubby, curly blond hair. In fact, he was close enough that I noted, with some surprise, that he was leaning into the tenor line. This was unusual. As the verse ended, the chorus began, and at the fourth “Noel,” the tenor line jumps to a very high note. And our tenor went there, went there with passion and confidence. In fact, by the time four verses were through, I glanced at him and saw his face shining with sweat, vibrating with the effort and passion of emphasizing that high note.

A past experience, one that I can only assume was good, given the young man’s prodigious effort and passion, was being touched. The setting, muddy acoustics and all, had transported him to a time that included hope.

I spoke to him after the program, told him how moved I was by his singing. He was immediately shy, the “aw, shucks,” variety of shy. I didn’t assume a familiarity, a trust that he would tell that part of his story. Nor did he offer.

Epiphany -- “a time for commemorating the presentation of Christ to the world.”

Epiphany -- “an Aha! moment, a new realization, a light bulb over the head.”

My curly blond friend offered me an Epiphany.

Organizations: First Noel

Geographic location: Israel

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