It happened again: I went out on a limb (OK, a very small branch) and organized an ensemble to sing special Christmas music on a Sunday morning, and then the weather caused us to cancel church services. that’s two years in a row now. I know I’m not really a choir director, but I’m hoping that this isn’t God’s veto of my efforts…
Have I made it clear that Christmas music is my all-time, lifelong favorite genre? My CD collection and piano arrangement library will back me up. I could listen to Christmas music for two days straight without any repeated discs. So of course I have always loved singing in a Christmas choir. I must have been in 6th grade the first year I was part of a choir that sang for Midnight Mass. That became the norm till I went to college in Boston. The Boston University Choral Union/Madrigal Singers also sang wonderful Christmas music. Then after several wilderness years in Southern California (where no amount of tightly drawn drapes and frigid A/C could convince us that it was really December), we were back home again in Indiana, and singing at candlelight carol services on Christmas Eve. Many seasons at church have included a large-scale concert, sometimes with drama.
It’s all wonderful: the music, the decorations, the colors. And it’s all fraught with risk and tension: will the weather cooperate? Is there any other time of year with a more unfortunate combination of mammoth expectations and potentially devastating disappointment? Just this past week, ice storms have canceled not just our humble offering, but the huge Christmas concerts, cantatas and musicals of many large churches. All that work, all those rehearsals, all that publicity…wasted.
It all makes me wonder whether we should scale back our expectations, our preparations…and perhaps give God more elbow room in which to work. Ironically, of all the major concerts I can remember, whether as a participant or an observer, one stands out, and it is one of the humblest.
It was a year when our church was in transition, and we weren’t trying to do anything very ambitious. A simple ceremony of lessons and carols was our goal. Readers were stationed at various places in the sanctuary, on both the floor and balcony level. The choir sang some carol arrangements, and the congregation sang others. Toward the end of the hour, a good friend of mine, a teacher, stepped forward in the balcony to read Luke 2: 4-7.
So Joseph also went up from
the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of
David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and
she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and
placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
We’ve all read or heard that passage more times than we could count, right? I know I have. But even as I try to describe this scene for you, I’m getting choked up. For whatever reason, at that moment the reality of bearing a child in a stable, wrapping him up and putting him in a feed trough became vivid for Portia. We could hear it in her voice. Those of us, like me, who were at the right angle, could look up into her face as the picture before her eyes moved her to unexpected tears. …”no room for them in the inn” was spoken with such halting effort that it was barely audible. But we all heard it. We all “got” it.
The choir was supposed to sing then. I think it was an acapella arrangment of “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly”…I’m not certain. But what I remember clearly, some fifteen years later, is that every singer–and the director–had such a lump in his or her throat that we could scarcely sing. The first verse was whispered through tears before we began to pull ourselves together. It could have been goofy or embarrassing, but it wasn’t. It felt holy.
Portia apologized later: “I guess I was worshiping too much before I got up to read.” Too much? Is that possible? Even now I cannot read that verse without remembering that night. I cannot read it without weeping. No room for the Lord of Heaven…the Holy One asleep on the hay.
And yet these pictures are so commonplace now. Our senses are saturated with manger scenes: wood, porcelain or plastic; oil and watercolors; greeting card, poster, coloring book; television, church service, movie theater. We’ve seen it too often. It doesn’t rock us as it ought to. But once, for a moment, it took my friend’s breath away. And God let us all share that moment. It wasn’t big and dramatic and played before a packed house. It was just a small evening church service in December. I’m so glad we didn’t get snowed out that year.