December 24, 2007 12:16 PM
Today again? Wow. God, please help me to appreciate it for the soul-filled night that it is. Rushing is a part of it, but so is sitting still.
This day only comes once a year but somehow it seems to arrive faster and faster. I love it, but I can’t lose it, I can’t let it go so quickly… Allison and I leave the choir room after practicing the anthems we know by heart, racing giddily to the sanctuary—we’ve been doing this since we were four, actually since we were born, but it never gets old. No, it becomes more precious as our five, ten, fifteen years become twenty. As we’ve made our way out of daily Atlanta home life and into college transience, this one night slams permanence back into our beings. I feast my eyes on the buzzing crowd in the pews, soaking in the electric energy that could only happen tonight. Making our way to the back, I stop to grin at people from past, present, future—Chris, Rob, Jessica and Elizabeth, Kallan and Kathy… I rush up to the balcony, wave feverishly, and bound back downstairs as people continue to chock the narthex. I hug Paul and David and Robert, jumping up and down. It never ceases to amaze me that nearly all the people that I love in the world are in one place. I can barely wrap my head around it, and so I simply chuckle at this normality that is far too abnormal. Bill Mallard is letting loose his sandpaper Southern voice, warbling yet sturdy, at the front of the church, leading us in the “Aymen” spiritual (I spell it thus because how else can you understand how we sing it?) and allowing us to showcase our lack of rhythm as we clap along.
He died to save us
Will live forever!
Aymen, aymen, aymen!
And then my brothers and sisters, my youth group, steps up to sing our song, “Ding Dong Merrily On High.” I don’t get to do this anymore—my graduation day ended my official tenure. But I sing with them anyway, from the back, enjoying the way the alto lilts off my tongue without thinking. Singing it for six years does that to you. I gaze at their bright faces—many singing for the last time, including my little brother—right where they’re supposed to be.
And then Cynthia comes out to sing “O Holy Night”—a fairly new tradition. The energy lightens, quiets, still there but focused on the clearness, the words that mark us so beautifully as children, as souls, as One Body, warmth in the cold outside—
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
till He appeared and the soul felt its worth
Finally, finally! Timothy ignites the organ, which is my cue to get this proud, silly, huge grin on my face as I impatiently wait in the processional line. Walking down that aisle, hearing my own voice mixed with others—O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant! I feel like I am walking with myself at different ages, now completely united. I walk the exact same steps, sing the same words at the same time on this same day. I catch Katie’s lovely bright eyes as I wade into the choir loft amidst dancers, beasts, children, and we beam understanding at each other—this is where we belong. Nothing but this. Always. Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation! I stare out at that crowd, seeing faces—Ralph, Cheryl, Flemings, Barbara, Bethany and Jeff, Terrys… and knowing the faces I can’t find in the blur—my family, David, Katie, Adrienne, everyone. Here we are again. Jack steps up to the podium and repeats those words—“2,000 years ago…” Time stops, stands still. I gaze out the magnificent windows to the dimming light. Gaze back inside. Crowded family hope. This is faith. This is life.
And Mary and Joseph carry their lantern and gaze around in the darkness, pretending they don’t hear us sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem…” “Joseph, I’m excited about this baby, but I’m scared too. I wish we were at home with friends and family.” The corny cute lines never change. “I’m afraid too, Mary. But God will be with us.”
They disappear behind the old faithful sky blue backdrop that watched my brother play Baby Jesus eighteen years ago, and we in the choir watch Parker gently carry baby Banks to his mother, Messiah for a night. Parker, my age, acquainted from birth, who I haven’t seen on a daily basis since seventh grade. I don’t know him at all anymore, but watching this man that I knew much better as such a boy do this sacred thing stings my eyes. They bring Banks out—Christ by highest heaven adored, Christ the everlasting Lord!—lifting him up into the spotlight, the Godlight?, something straight out of The Lion King, but never as corny—Mild he lays his glory by, born that we no more may die, born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth! And for tonight, this is our Savior. He doesn’t know it, he’ll be shown pictures, maybe he’ll even be teenagerly embarrassed. But these words resonate within my body, within this space holding the One Body, and they are true.
The trio sings “What Child is This?”, matching the dancers’ peaceful majesty, girls who grew up wanting to dance in the Christmas Eve pageant. The generations of teenagers wax and wane, shift and stay, always the glow of familiar faces.
Then Barbara stands up and on cue the pews begin to bustle again, children pouring out of them, scampering up to the altar with excited babbles, Christmasy eyes, and patent leather feet. They push and smush into each other and the tune flies screechily but adorably high with Barbara’s waving arms—Away in a manger, no crib for a bed—and I wonder, how many of us sitting here did the same so many years in a row? Can I get a show of hands?
There’s Timothy’s starry bell-like mystery music for the shepherds, as they spot each other across the congregation, waving, beckoning. The microphone is passed around, the stuffed animal sheep clutched tightly.
“BRRR! It’s really cold tonight!”
“Come and join our campfire.”
“Thank you. We will. Our sheep have been acting strange tonight—have yours?”
And oh, those friendly beasts, the kids in beautiful masks, prancing and gliding as animals, bowing to the babe as children of God. Jesus our brother, strong and good…
Anna’s graceful sparkling figure pulsing with joy, The Star, sacred… dances to Mollie’s song, from a distant home, the Savior we come seeking…my best friend’s voice light and wispy like a cloudy bright star. Afterward, I shiver, awaiting the menacing royal music of Magi with a purpose as they glide into the light down the aisle, followed by tiny pages with cute floppy hats and entrancing gold boxes.
And then Joseph’s song, our song, written for our service many years ago—
At last I hold you in my arms, child of promise, child of joy, angels told us you would come—God’s own baby, Mary’s boy—the quiet of the congregation as Joseph holds his son is always palpable, the soft calming organ. I can’t help mouthing the words. I think Darsey notices; I see his smile lighting up his ruddy cheeks across from me.
Soon his beam moves to his arms as he conducts us all in the joyful triumphant hymn: Hail thou ever blessed morn, HAIL! Redemption’s happy dawn, SING! Through all Jerusalem, Christ is born in Bethlehem!
This year, like all other years, it’s six o’clock too soon—as Jim Thompson begins twanging his guitar and the light goes all blue, sixth-grade angels flit from pew to pew, bringing little drops of light into the darkness as candles illumine the faces of blood-family, God-family. And we sing “Silent Night” as we always do, a musical echo of this mesmerizing sight. It always gets me throughout this service—the knowledge that we were doing the exact same thing at the exact same time exactly a year ago. Exactly two, five, ten years ago. In the midst of all this change, we always return to this. I would be nowhere else on this night of nights, the night that blurs me together at all ages—5, 16, 20. When I look into the eyes of my friends by my side I know they also feel that indescribable peace: this is where we are supposed to be. There is nothing else except this world, this joy of God and family, this song
With the angels let us sing
Alleluia to our King
On this night, our senior pastor does something new. At these words, he raises his candle high into the air, subtle but strong. And then one row, and another, until my family is lifting the light to the world, to each other—and I lose it. I cannot sing anymore, gasping salty tears with the beauty and longing and hope and history of it all. The faith that is raised as we raise our hands. As we embrace each other and laugh after the service. As we live each day away from our home.
Christ the Savior is born.