The choir loft is an amazing place from which to worship because it provides a panoramic perspective. Christmas and Easter offer particularly good opportunities to observe because a choir member is part of multiple iterations of the same basic service. Our attentions can wander because we've already heard the sermon, the songs, the prayers.
Those are also the services when there are extra chairs set up to accommodate the overflow crowd. The overflow has many causes. A goodly number of the people in the pews sit in the same pews many Sundays throughout the year, just not every Sunday in the year at the same time on the same days. No one has to catch an early flight for work the next day, the ski season is in tourist mode or winding down, football season is over (Easter) or nearly over (Christmas) and none of the sports of the current season interfere with worship. Others in the pews are visiting family and would, on any other Sunday, be sitting in the pews of their home churches.
The rest come to the celebrations. But they miss the reason for the celebrations. They are not thinking about the crucifixion when they sing the Christmas carols and they are not thinking about it when they sing Alleluia on Easter Sunday morning. They miss the call to community which is a call of pain that makes the joy all the more sweet.
I read a wonderful midrash on the garden of Eden that, burned down to basics, said we owe a great deal to the much maligned Eve because, without the pain of the fall, there would be no true joy. The thought has stuck with me for more than 10 years now. The implications are significant. If there had been no Adam and Eve, no tree, no serpent, there would have been no need for God to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to establish the covenant, no need for Jesus to be born or to die to renew a covenant. Or there might have been some other humans to fail...
But the facts of faith being what they are, there was a fall, there is sin and there is a continuing need to be called into covenant with God. And part of that covenant is being called to faith in community. Cantor Regina Y. Heit at Congregation Emanuel in Denver talks about the specific instructions for the building of the ark being the ultimate community building exercise. I think she is right and I think God was right in asking God's people to be in community.
We come together in community because it is in community that we are at our best (and worst), where we accept and are accepted by others. As our adult education classes visited with representatives of various faith traditions about how their faith impacted their choices in life's challenging times, I was surprised over and over again by the community. The Hindus and Zen Buddhists certainly practice their faith in private, but they also come together in community for worship and fellowship, to be with others who believe the same things. The Maggid who spoke to us spoke directly of community as being there at the important times of life -- after a new baby is born, at times of remembrance, at times of death. Certainly our Islamic scholar could visit Mecca at any time, but the importance of a ritual pilgrimage in a community makes the trip more important, even a life altering event. The five specific times to be attentive to God can be done alone, but is all the more important in community.
For Christians, it is the same. Yes, you can have an intense personal relationship with God, but it is in community that the personal relationship is fulfilled, that we wrestle with the hard times in life and celebrate the little blessings, that we struggle with living out our faith beyond the doors of the church, where we feel free to ask the "Why?" questions. And part of that community is participating, not just in the parties, but in the betrayal, the dark despair of Gethsemane, the agony of the cross. Without those, the Alleluias of Easter are just words.