And Angels Sing

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The onslaught of school Christmas concerts has left us feeling half drunk on joy over their angelic voices — but also sobered by the responsibility for their uncertain futures.

But mostly, the three sets of concerts staged to celebrate the season delighted and amazed us.

The progression was compelling all by itself.

The parents and families of the squirming, chirping, grinning, grimacing, laughing, squeaking, careless cacophony of students from Payson Elementary School demonstrated the nerve-wracking joy of childhood — the boisterous, headlong potential of those bright little souls.

They waved to their parents, eyed their kazoos dubiously, jostled one another, lined up like so many fluffy ducklings — then sang like angels. They didn’t worry about whether they could sing, but warbled and squeaked and shouted for joy, under Christie Varner’s tender, loving, knowing direction.

You wanted to hug every one of them, jump to your feet, wipe away tears, tell them they’re beautiful and brave and the reason for everything. And as they ring their handbells with dizzying concentration, you think about the baby in the manger who wise men worshiped — for every baby needs worshiping.

When that particular baby grew up to be wise beyond measure in his own right, he loved children most of all. On one occasion, when the disciples tried to prevent parents from bringing their children to Jesus he said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16).

The middle school concert offered a similar delight — although with a smaller audience because by middle school we don’t let all our children sing. They take band. They take chorus — if they can fit it into their schedule, if they can afford the fees. So the crowd shrinks. Still, an enormous chorus took to the stage clothed in bright yellow shirts and radiant smiles. They had traded kazoos for uncertain trumpets, struggled to extend the range of those quavering voices — some on the edge of change. They looked shyly on one another or nudged and giggled. They watched the band director Mike Buskirk with heart-rending concentration. They practiced for months, lay awake the night before and climbed those steps despite the crushing fear of making a mistake, which is like a small death at that age. Then opened their mouths and amazed us all.

Next came the high school choir and band, this year under the direction of Sergio Beraun. The choir formed a line and sang carols in the lobby that would have done the Mormon Tabernacle proud, with complex harmonies and blended voices. The guitar class plucked away, fretting dreams of rock stardom. The beginning choir tackled a song in Latin. The band navigated original arrangements. They had practiced for months and hours, pushing themselves, steeling themselves, feeling the joy of the music moving up through them and out through their instruments.

And the crowd was smaller yet, for at each level more and more of us decide that we cannot sing, cannot stand in that spotlight, cannot risk looking foolish — or simply cannot afford the fees for participation.

And at each performance, the teachers who have given their hearts and love and expertise to these children smiled ruefully and clanked the tin cup — hoping people would make a Credit for Kids donation. Those donations support all these programs, since the state Legislature is content to remain last in per-student funding — even if it means the schools cannot afford to offer music and art and a host of other electives without these taxpayer contributions.

But in the end, the round of concerts felt like a small miracle — as though we had seen these children in three nights go from kazoos to French horns. They unfurled, like roses blooming in time lapse photography.

They offered great hope — the sounding joy — that these children have come to us and lifted up their voices and shown their love and vulnerability to us in this season of joy as we celebrate the birth of a child.

But it was also a great responsibility — to watch them on that stage, so brave and pure. We must not fail them. We must bear them up, give them wings, catch them when they fall. That is not only the meaning of Christmas — it is the meaning of life itself.

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