Defining things is something of a passion of mine, I find.
This year, I was forced to define, in concrete terms, what Christmas meant to me. Just me. My definitions.
And I found that Christmas, for me, has two real meanings: one public, the other very personal.
When I was growing up, there was a tradition in my church. It was a tradition that, for me, continued into my adulthood.
Before the Midnight Christmas Eve Mass, there would be an hour of hymn singing. It was quiet, so quiet. The lights were lowered. Most spent the time on their knees. The familiar carols were sung in almost a hushed voice, crooning soothing sounds to the newborn Jesus. Hymns as lullabies. It was so beautiful. So moving.
This Advent season found me running into a hard wall at my current church. I read, with great dismay, that on the schedule for a service of lessons and carols, to be held the First Sunday After Christmas (note the word, After), one of the hymns to be sung was Silent Night.
From time-to-time at my church I am reminded that we are, in terms of music, Anglican in name only. Neither the priest nor the current music director were raised in the Anglican faith, so those time-caressed Anglican traditions, traditions that very often express themselves in music, are shrugged off (if they are even acknowledged at all).
To me, liturgy is formed by both the word and the music. There is no distinction.
When in our music God is glorified,
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried,
And so blinking back my surprise, my horror, at seeing Silent Night scheduled to be sung after Christmas Eve, and in the sunny daylight, I started shifting through myself to find my definition. To understand why I was having such a strong reaction. But it wasn’t just Silent Night that stunned me, Once In Royal David’s City was on the schedule.
Now, see, in Anglican terms, (the church that developed the service of lessons and carols), Once In Royal David’s City is sung first in the service. It begins with a solo treble voice. Then, the second verse is sung by the choir, after which the congregation is invited to join in. It’s the announcement that the service has begun. It is the hand of welcome. And that solo treble voice, singing out over the congregation, tells us that we are in the presence of God, and that we are damned lucky to be there.
So, be reverent!
But here that blessed hymn was stuck somewhere in the middle of the service, the congregation ordered to sing only a couple of verses, and all together, belting it out like we were at some kind of barn raising.
How often, making music, we have found
a new dimension in the world of sound,
as worship moved us to a more profound
And those weren’t the only offenses. Hymns that have their own Anglican music were dismissed for the more popular tunes. Away In The Manger, for instance. As I sang, in the lumpy choir practice, the “real” tune, people were shocked, and it was even described, out loud, as The Way Emmy Lou Harris Sings It. No. It’s the way the Anglican Church sings it!
Fine. I’m obsessive-compulsive about certain things.
This is where my proclivity for defining things comes in handy. I saw, clearly, that, for me, music and Christmas were irrevocably melded. And that both were the expressions of the highest reverence the church could have. This is about God on Earth, for Heaven’s sake.
This is about God.
And only God.
So has the church, in liturgy and song,
in faith and love, through centuries of wrong,
borne witness to the truth in every tongue:
That is my “public” definition that is associated with Christmas.
My private association with Christmas has to do with miracles.
I can’t remember when it began. Probably when I first started studying miracles.
There has always been, as far back as I can remember, The Christmas Miracle.
It has its own characteristics: it was a prayer assigned earlier in the year (so that I could start “working” on it), and it was to be prayed in a certain way, at three communion services during a seven-day period. That is, two Sunday services would not “work.” It had to be three services within the same week.
Don’t ask me. I only work here.
Now, finding three communion services during the week of Christmas is very, very easy. There are early and late Christmas Eve services. And, in my communion, there are always churches with a Christmas Day service. And there’s always a Sunday service (but only one) that I can use.
And, as far as I can remember, every time that I have prayed for a Christmas miracle, that prayer has come into being. Perhaps not exactly the way I imagined it would. But there has never been a time when a Christmas prayer has not been answered.
This year, however, threw me a curve.
It was a prayer that I don’t want answered. It is a prayer that I have feeling about. A prayer about which I have opinions.
And strong ones, at that.
And did not Jesus sing a Psalm that night
when utmost evil strove against the Light?
Then let us sing, for whom he won the fight:
So, on the day that I first read the schedule for the service of lessons and carols, I asked myself, What do I want to do about this all?
And the resounding answer was, I don’t want to go to church this Christmas season.
I don’t want to go to church on Christmas Eve, and pray.
I don’t want to go to church on Christmas Day, and pray.
And I really, really don’t want to go to church on the Sunday after Christmas and sing, Silent Night.
I just wanted to stay home, wrapped in my own sense of rightness, and be quiet in my own expression of reverence.
With no prayers for a Christmas miracle.
And for quite a bit of time, I chose that route. I practiced in my head how I would communicate to others in the church that I would not be there.
Other plans, I thought. Which was true, in its own way.
My other plan: I would sit home and be right.
I let the hours go by, smug in my plan.
No conflict with music.
No conflict with prayer.
And then it sunk in: what gift am I giving to God this Christmas?
I’d never had that thought before.
I always considered myself a servant of God. Or, in more playful moments, a samurai of God.
Who was I ever to think of giving something to God?
But here it was in front of me: a choice. I could do what I wanted, and avoid all conflict this season. Or, I could just do what was before me. I could surrender to the “wrong” music; and I could surrender to the prayer.
Fine. I thought.
But the more I thought about it, the more I began to appreciate the difference between God, the Father, and God, the Son. The Father: absolute. The Son: human. The One who sat among the imperfect. The One who touched the imperfect. The One who loved the imperfect.
And I thought, this is Christmas, after all, the celebration of that bravery of his, to come as God to walk amongst our imperfection. His pure steps alongside our wavering steps. Sometimes crossing our path, sometimes supporting us in our instability.
A baby imperfectly born. A man imperfectly sentenced to death.
So I set aside my determination to have a “right” Christmas. I set aside my unwillingness to pray for what I had been assigned to pray.
And I just let myself walk forward.
Christmas Eve I knelt and prayed as I had been assigned. I sang the carols assigned.
After the Mass, a group of us slid down the hill a bit and sang and read a service of lessons and carols to the elderly at the home the is nestled below our church. Children from our church distributed cookies and ornaments that they had made in Sunday school. Older children played their instruments and even read some of the lessons. Not only did we not lose any of the elderly, but as the service continued more and more joined us, sang the carols as best they could, and let their voices raise up to God, proclaiming, Thanks Be To God! after each lesson.
This morning, the organist and others off to family obligations, the congregation sang a cappella. The first carol had more the sound of the excavation of a quarry than anything else. So I stood up straight, raised my voice, and did my best to coax these gamboling sheep into a more orderly bleating.
Let every instrument be tuned for praise!
Let all rejoice who have a voice to raise!
And may God give us faith to sing always:
The priest, fatigued by the previous night’s activities, made a few missteps, but laughed about it afterward.
And I made my prayers to God.
And I saw that something had changed. No longer did I feel that I was just a servant of God. Here I was, someone in choice, doing something for God because I chose to. To the absolute, the relative offers up her small acts of imperfection.
It was the sign of a relationship, I thought.
A relationship with God. I am able to do something for God.
Just because I can.
I’m still not sure what I will do with Silent Night next Sunday.
But there’s always hope for me.