My first Christmas at church I didn’t know what to expect. I had never spent so much time in a pew until that spring before that first Christmas. The season of Advent was a surprise to me. I thought it was merely the religious counter to consumerism post-Halloween. Pumpkins and turkeys and tall evergreen trees fighting for space on store shelves and floors, hanging on wires from warehouse height ceilings. Sets of twenty-five mini boxes filled with the chocolate or tea or Lego of the day.
But church Advent wasn’t that. It was greenery and purple, the season of waiting, of patience, of reflection. I had no idea what I was doing, where the path I trod would take me and so patience and reflection were exactly what I needed.
Didn’t we all?
And apparently that insight, that foresight was already built into the season.
And, then, overnight, seemingly as if by magic, wreaths adorned the walls alternating with the windows. Purple ribbons changed to gold. At the back of the choir, the tall evergreen, white lights shining brightly and garland delicately strung across the bottom of the organ pipes appeared.
I did know that there would be more people at Christmas services than at the daily masses, and even more than at the Sunday masses. I thought the pews would be filled, everyone tightly sitting, trying not to touch their neighbor but failing at that, everyone finally giving up the pretense.
Filling the pews, laughter and song, smiles and handshakes. What I didn’t know was that it would be standing room only, barely meeting fire code, if at all. That first Christmas Eve, the low hum of talk between carols, seeing the pastor, greeting the pastor, shocked as he remembered my name. The lights dimmed giving off the feeling of candlelight. Father J asking the back row to budge over so I could sit, leaving me no good way to sneak out if it became too much.
I was unknown and still welcomed as family. No strings, no judgment, malice toward none.
The week before this Eve was something many churches do, but many more used to do. The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. I thought it was a sing-a-long, but it was more a solemn service alternated with hymns.
Ode to Joy. My favorite moment in the Die Hard movie was actually Beethoven and part of the Christmas music selection; with words. I grinned ear to ear at something so familiar in such a strange setting.
Around the middle, towards about three quarters, the music director, D, began his piano and sang the first three words – O, holy, night. This song wasn’t in the book , the guide we’d received when we arrived, a clear indication that we were to listen and not join in.
It wouldn’t have mattered had the words been there with the direction to chorus. D’s voice rose and fell and held notes I couldn’t imagine existed. It was as if the sky opened and angels guided his music. It was more than just a lovely song by a lovely voice, although it was that also. It was more than a heart could hold. It was G-d and joy and love and spirit rising as incense, speaking to souls. I held my breath. I didn’t realize I had tears in my eyes until the last note when the spell was broken with applause.
Every year since then I wait through all the musical offerings, enjoying all, but hoping my Christmas gift arrives from D and it usually does in a pre-piano hush that clears the senses before they can be filled again.
The birth of the child who would be King in every note, every breath, every moment.