The last strains of organ music faded and the minister lifted both arms for the congregation to stand. I had been cold in the wooden pew in a pair of too-big tights and patent leather shoes. I stood between my parents, my brother still seated on the other side of my mom, coloring the bulletin. One hand in my good winter coat pocket fingered a trove of things: a penny, a few empty pistachio shells, and a worn tri-folded note I couldn’t read as the lights in the sanctuary dimmed.
The candlelight began from the advent wreath up front: five candles in the circle of an evergreen wreath. The minister lit his candle from the white Christ candle in the center, then tipped his wick to Mary, the minister of education. Light glanced off their heavy robes and cheekbones, then traveled from wick to wick, slowly dispelling the deep shadows from the cathedral ceiling.
Before the light reached our pew, my eyes were drawn to the ceiling-high windows, where through the outdoor spotlights a brisk snow had begun to fall in earnest. As the flame passed row to row, head after head turned to the windows until even the minister noticed from up front. He and Mary leaned their heads together, then he lifted his voice.
“As we sing ‘Silent Night,’ let’s move outside with our candles,” he said. We stood as a congregation and filed through the doors, hands shielding the flames. An elder turned off the floodlights, so only the candles cut the darkness.
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
The night was not silent with our voices raising against the hush of snow, creating the feel that we were in a small room rather than a wide-open field outside the church. Neither was it was bright, but it was calm and it was holy.
Something about the voices weaving together a familiar hymn in the simple candlelight, snow flecking our dark coats and dressy shoes, something here in this field under the silent snowfall—this, THIS was Christmas to me.
Something set apart in this holy night, in the thought of another night far from hushed in a barn with lowing cattle, stamping hooves, and the cries of labor followed by newborn squalls.
For Mary and Joseph, this was a night of loneliness. For shepherds in the field visited by a a host of angels, it was anything but lonely. For generations looking back, gathering corporately to commune with wine and bread or candles, considering the changing of the world beginning in a stable. And that one midnight in the snow as a girl was to me the essence of a holy celebration of a silent and not-so-silent night.
Though Christmas is over, I am still reflecting now in these quiet days before the next holiday takes over. The memory of that midnight candlelight service in the snow has stuck with me through the years, though I don’t know that I fully understood the Christmas message at that time. What I did not understand in words, I feel I experienced—an experience that paved the way for real understanding later. I caught a glimpse of Christmas in that night.
This year with a sleeping baby in the row and two boys eager to light things on fire (and one who almost lit several people and coats), it was a different kind of night. And yet…there is still something holy in the Christmas Eve candlelight service. It might still be my favorite part of Christmas. There is yet the anticipation, the celebration of what is to come.
That’s where we are now, isn’t it? We anticipate the end of this world or our own end, whichever comes first. We wait for and celebrate the idea of this baby born in a manger, returning victorious to a world that will bow and call him Lord. All while in a great darkness, the flames of faith flickering small among the vast deep. Small alone, but together dispelling darkness.
Do you have a favorite part of Christmas? Is there still something you are reflecting on now, days later? I am still considering it all and thinking of lights and flames and barns and heavenly hosts and shepherds—but most especially of one baby, God and man, wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.