“Our pew” is on the right hand side, two thirds of the way back. That’s where we always sit when we attend Christmas Eve services at our second church home, Episcopal Church of the Nativity in Huntsville. I’ve written of our experiences there before, and as longtime readers know, that’s our refuge where we occasionally go in order to escape the tyranny of the modern (e.g. PowerPoint!) and surrender instead to the power and holy mysteries of the liturgy.
Picture in your mind the quintessential Christmas Eve setting: an old, storied building topped with a 150 foot Gothic Revival spire reaching toward the heavens, the nave bathed in soft candle light and bedecked with festive, seasonal greenery, a 12-foot Christmas tree near the front, beckoning with a thousand starry lights. Hear the beautiful prelude of sacred selections by talented young musicians like our friend Matthew McDonald on the bassoon and Native Huntsvillian Susanna Phillips, a product of Nativity and Julliard, and now one of the world’s rising opera stars, who just last week made her Metropolitan Opera debut in New York in the role of Musetta in “La Boheme.”
I had wondered if she would even make it back to Huntsville with her busy schedule, but there she was, singing her trademark Cantique De Noel (“O Holy Night”) and smiling brightly, eager as always to share her gifts and contribute to the community of believers who nurtured her and sent nearly 140 hooting and hollering supporters (Brava! Brava!) to her Met debut, much to the astonishment of her fellow cast members.
Then hold in your mind’s eye the glorious processional, the fragrant incense, the bowing and reverencing as the crucifer passes by. Then the scripture readings, including one from Titus by my friend Ed from work (I was so proud!) and the stirring passage from Luke 2 (“Do not be afraid!”). Hear the soothing, but stirring homily urging us all onward in the spirit of Christ, and then the recitation of The Creed, the Prayers of the People, the gentle breeze created by the sitting, the standing and the kneeling. Picture The Peace, the kisses and gentle touches passed between lovers, the smiles, handshakes, hugs and greetings of “Merry Christmas” and “Peace to you” passed between perfect strangers bound together in one body–strangers no more.
Try, and I know this is hard, to picture three teenage brothers who, left to their own devices, might be awash in testosterone and their thousand meaningless disagreements, greeting each other, a little reluctantly, but when you’re caught up in the moment like that it’s okay to let go, with handshakes and season’s greetings. That, in and of itself, is a Christmas miracle.
Hear the call to The Table and see the going forward, the kneeling and supplication, everyone, regardless of station, laid bared and level, exposed for who they are–beggars at the feast. The folding and extension of the hands, The Body Broken, The Blood given freely, for me and for you. And then the return to our pews, all smiles now, refreshed in time of famine, renewed and strengthened for the work that lies ahead.
Then picture the recessional and hear the chorus of the closing hymn, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” See the choir as they wrap lovingly around us, one body now united now in song and praise. Then imagine the voice of Susanna approaching from behind you, soaring like that of an archangel on the final verse, and then see her out of the corner of your eye beside you, on the right hand side, two thirds of the way back, just like 2 years ago, which is exactly why you chose that spot in the first place, hoping that it would happen again–and, praise be to God, it did:
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die:
With th’ angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem.”
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”
Hold all that together–see it, hear it, imagine it–and you’ll know what it was like to stand in our shoes as we caught a glimpse of glory near the corner of Eustis Avenue and Greene Street at the break of Christmas Day.
The Celtic Christians spoke of “Thin Places”–locations on this earth where the presence of God is so strong that they serve as doorways or portals between this world and another.
As Susanna, a woman who was placed on this earth to sing, stood beside us and serenaded us early this Christmas morning, we could only smile at the great effusion of light and life. We realized that we had found our own “Thin Place,” right hand side, two thirds of the way back, and the veil between heaven and earth suddenly became so diaphanously thin, that we nearly fell through to the other side.
Merry Christmas, everyone.