It’s been a good week. Time has moved relatively slowly, not rushed – despite the fact that we didn’t really start working toward Christmas until Sunday. We did a bunch of shopping and planned our Christmas surprises and in general enjoyed ourselves. We actually had our Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve, just the five of us plus Jane’s boyfriend. It was a relaxing day. To top it all off, two packages that we thought weren’t going to arrive until after Christmas arrived just in time. Life was going well. This might have contributed to what happened that night.
I have always enjoyed the Christmas Eve worship service. Most services I have attended over the years have involved Lessons and Carols. The service alternates between Scripture reading and Christmas hymns. The last song is almost always Silent Night, sung by candlelight after the light of the Christ candle in the Advent wreath is used to light everyone’s handheld candles.
In my experience, people then file silently out of the sanctuary. It is a very solemn and spiritual moment. This year, however, my church added Joy To The World to the end of the service. And I was one of four people playing bells for it.
This meant that I walked up to the front of the sanctuary, behind the altar, just in front of the chancel area, before the candles were lit for Silent Night. We needed to be ready for Joy To The World, so we would sing Silent Night up front instead of in our pews.
I was looking down at my music and in general getting ready when the pastor approached with the flame. I lit my candle from his and turned to Jane who lit hers from mine. We each turned behind us to the choir so someone could light theirs from ours. And then we turned around.
I was stunned. All but the back few rows already had their candles lit. It was glorious and beautiful. It took my breath away. And then we started singing Silent Night – that beautifully haunting song. I had the benefit of a dozen gifted singers right behind me and the lights of candles lighting up the faces of my church family in front of me.
My throat constricted. I had to force the song through. I sternly told myself not to cry. Not because there’d be anything wrong with that but because it would prevent me from joining my voice with the choir. I regained my composure.
And then I saw my middle child standing there by himself – his father was in the choir. His mother and sister preparing to play bells. His little brother asleep in the pew. I thought of the darling boy who couldn’t wait to light his candle who was now sleeping through the song. I looked at the smile on my standing son’s face – the son who had lit his candle without adult supervision and hadn’t burned anything down. His smile was beaming. I think he had forgotten to sing.
I saw the man on hospice care sitting in his wheelchair in the center aisle. It had to have taken so much energy for he and his wife to have been there. I hadn’t seen either one of them in months.
Then I saw my friend and her aging mother. Her mother but not her father, who had passed away earlier this year. Her mother was still grieving and was starting to get confused and requiring more focused care. My friend was trying to help her mother with the candle. It was not unlike helping a child. But both of their faces were lit up with the light of Christ. They were beautiful. In all their love and struggle and grief. they were beautiful. It was Christmas Eve. And everyone was beautiful.
My throat constricted again and I pushed through a little less successfully. I was sure I had never seen anything more powerful or heard anything more powerful or been part of anything more powerful. A single tear traced a path down my cheek and I let it travel without wiping it away.
My church family means so much to me. My biological family lives at least four hours away – all of them. So when I need help and support, it’s my church friends who provide it. And it’s them who receive my support. But this went beyond that. Beyond love of my brothers and sisters in Christ.
I am, in my heart, a skeptic. I analyze, I doubt, I require proof. I do not accept a literal reading of all parts of the Bible. I have a modern look at it. There are many things that members of my congregation believe that I do not. I can understand where atheists are coming from. I can.
But in that moment, with the beautiful music swelling around me and the soft glow lighting people’s faces and the tear on my cheek, I saw the hope. I felt the hope. I shared the hope. I’m still the same person with all the same beliefs and doubts. That will likely never change – it’s how God made me. But that moment was sacred for me. I can only assume I felt my “heart strangely warmed” the same as John Wesley felt so many years before me.
I am at peace. Merry Christmas everyone.