There is something extraordinary about Christmas Eve. The excitement has been building since the start of Advent, four weeks ago. A lot of work has gone into shopping, decorating, cooking, and wrapping. And, although the shortest night of the year was two nights ago, tonight will be just a minute or two longer.
I remember waiting for Santa Claus after my parents and I had returned home from the Candlelight Christmas Eve service at the Baptist church across the street. I loved the lit candles in the windows, but the lights over the choir loft and the baptistry were just too bright. Even then, I was a tad particular about church services. Worse, I developed an aversion to “O Holy Night,” which seemed obligatory to that congregation every year.
Flash forward to my middle years, when once again I lived across the street from a church, Episcopal this time. I was remarried and my son nine years old. My husband was Roman Catholic, something I tried but did not work for me. The music seemed too modern. After several centuries of letting the choir and organ provide the music, the congregation was just learning to sing again, all of which left me feeling bereft. (It had a millennia of prayerful and beautiful music that was seldom heard, breaking my heart.)
So, I attended that Episcopal church across the street on Christmas Eves those many years ago, where I finally found my home. There was the communal liturgy, familiar readings, and music – oh, my, such music, in multiple parts and in languages from English to Latin, French to Italian! I joined that choir where I sang for over a decade, including many Christmas Eves. Leaving the house a bit before 11 o’clock and pacing through the winter air, it was a joy to attend and participate. And yes, there was the obligatory “O Holy Night,” just as I had experienced in the Baptist church, only different.
As I would leave that church after midnight each year, the air felt colder, and somehow the stars seemed brighter. The traffic would be gone, and the quiet would allow me to process what I had just experienced. It was a slow trip to my front door across the street, and I hated rushing it. There was a feeling in the air, something the church dubbed this “thin space” between heaven and earth. Perhaps that was why the stars seemed brighter, but I could feel the night’s holiness unlike any other night of the year.
Though it was colder, I wanted to enjoy every minute of remembrance. During the service, we would process to “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and incense, and speak the familiar liturgy and listen to familiar readings. We would sing more carols, and finally, share communion at the altar rail before recessing to “Joy to the World.” On that walk home, I would relive both what the choir had sung and the sound of an entire church singing the carols. I often felt a shawl of faith and joy wrap around me, even through my coat.
Those nights were mystical, only beginning to wear off as I would get into warm pajamas and climb into bed. I would not want the feeling to end. The flame of mystical joy brightened again as I would offer my prayers, then drift to sleep while listening to the radio playing Christmas music or perhaps a service from England or Washington, DC.
I am not a mystic, but now and again, I feel flashes of something beyond the ordinary. More and more, I rely on streaming video to bring the church to me. There are still beautiful things, like the Jewish synagogue downtown allowing the Episcopal cathedral congregation to use their facilities to seat the much larger crowd than the cathedral can accommodate. There is music and a familiar liturgy. I may not be there in person, but I still recall the feeling of taking communion on those magical nights. I feel the presence of both angels and those who have passed through the mystical veil into the very presence of God.
May you have a safe, happy, holy, mystical Christmas Eve and a most joyous Christmas Day. Look for the mystery. It will come if I am patient and attentive, and it will work for you too.
Image: Communion of the Apostles (between 1886-1894) by J.J. Tissot. From the collection at the Brooklyn Museum. Found at Wikimedia Commons.
Linda Ryan is an Education for Ministry mentor, an avid reader, a Baroque and Renaissance music lover, and a fumbling knitter. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter and lives with her cat, Phoebe, near Phoenix, Arizona.