Before the marvel of this night adorning / fold your wings and bow / then tear the sky apart with light / and with your news the world endow.
I sat in the pew on Christmas Eve while the choir sang me into the heavenly host. Let me say that again, it is an astounding statement. I sat in the pew on Christmas Eve. Yeah, that part. That’s what was so astounding. I sat in the pew, on Christmas Eve. Do you know how long it has been since I sat in a pew on Christmas Eve? Tell me, because I don’t. It seems like forever. I have been up front, leading the event for more years than I can count.
OK, there have been years, in Edinburgh in the late 80's for example, when I didn’t lead worship on Christmas Eve, but those are dimly remembered. I sat in the pew on Christmas Eve in Nashville Tennessee this year. Two different pews. I did it twice. Just because I couldn’t believe I was doing, I guess.
No, I did it twice, partly because we have a couple of churches that we like and so we decided to go to each of them on Christmas Eve. Plus, for some reason Nashville prefers an early Christmas Eve service. The vast majority of the services offered were between 4:30 and 6pm. I love an early service, especially one designed with children in mind. The wild chaotic, barely holding in the longing hearts of the little ones who are all space shuttles rumbling on the launch pad read to leap into the joy that is Christmas morning.
Proclaim the birth of Christ and peace / that fear and death and sorrow cease: / sing the gift of peace!
Those early children’s services might speak of peace, but it is a vibrating peace, woven with joy and anticipation and a living hope so real you can taste it, as strong as the peppermint candy canes you hand out knowing it is going to make fingers sticky and lips a bright shiny red. Now, the earlier of the services was more a family service, not simply for children, so it had a calm about it, a sober embrace of the Christmas joy, with choirs and preacher and candlelight and communion. It was a beautiful experience, though odd to sit in a pew and observe, participate like the assembled masses, crowded into the pews. A glorious celebration of the night.
Awake the sleeping world with song / this is the day the Lord has made. / Assemble here, celestial throng / in royal splendor come arrayed.
I do love the early services on Christmas Eve, but precious to my heart and my thirsting soul is the late night service on Christmas Eve. Our Catholic friends call it Midnight Mass, though it usually starts at 11 to end at midnight. Here it was ten thirty, the latest we could find in our United Methodist tradition here in Nashville. And we went early, expecting there to be another crowd, seating limited. Rhys, who went with us to the early service was fading fast and he decided to stay home and go to bed. So, La Donna and I went and found a seat and waited.
Assemble here, celestial throng / in royal splendor come arrayed. / Give earth a glimpse of heavenly bliss / a teasing taste of what they miss: / sing endless bliss!
A taste. The organ played a full half hour before the service began. It was glorious, and certainly an invitation into a celestial throng. The crowd was smaller than I expected, and subdued, leaning in to all that took place, the carols, the anthems, the sermon and the story. There was a friendly camaraderie in the sanctuary that night, like we all belonged there, together, one family because of the child in a manger. When we went forward to kneel at the rail for communion, it was as if we knelt on straw and were straining to see the baby. And the little crumb of bread and tiny thimbleful of juice was a Christmas meal of love and acceptance, of fellowship divine. And all the strife that seems ready to rend the denomination asunder was pushed aside in the darkness of that vast space. And we were enfolded into a new hope, and a new possibility.
The love that we have known / our joy and endless light / now to the loveless world be shown / break upon its night. / Into one song compress the love that rules above: / God is love!
“Before the Marvel of This Night” is the anthem the Chancel and Sanctuary choirs of West End United Methodist Church sang on that late Christmas Eve. It is indeed an invitation to stand with the angel host who sang Christ’s birth to the shepherds on that lonely Bethlehem hillside. Carl Schalk wrote the beautiful music for this piece, but the words were penned by Jaroslav Vajda. Vajda was born in Ohio, despite the Slovak name. His father was a Lutheran pastor there in the early 1900's when Jaroslav was born. Jaroslav himself became a Lutheran pastor and served churches in Pennsylvania, Missouri and Alexandria, Indiana. He wrote over 200 hymns, including a few in the United Methodist Hymnal (#122, 235, 619) before his death in 2008 at the age of 89.
Now the silence / Now the Peace / Now the empty hands uplifted / Now the kneeling / Now the plea / Now the Father’s arms in welcome / Now the hearing / Now the power / Now the vessel brimmed for pouring / Now the body / Now the blood / Now the joyful celebration / Now the wedding / Now the songs / Now the heart forgiven leaping / Now the Spirit’s visitation / Now the Son’s epiphany / Now the Father’s blessing / Now / Now / Now
That hymn is listed as a communion hymn in our hymnal. But it could be the promise of Christmas Eve. It could be the hope of a world in need of peace. And not willing, not needing to wait. Now, Vajda and Schalk wrote, Now. I write this, after mulling it over since Christmas Eve, on New Year’s Eve. Another threshold into new possibilities and new hope. Or maybe just another year, another day, another sunrise so much like all the others we have seen.
Except it isn’t. The world is new. God has promised to do a new thing in our midst.
Isaiah 43:18-19 Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
Join me in working and watching for the new thing that God is doing in our midst. And I wish you all the blessings of Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.