Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Radiant beams from your holy face

Preparing this week for my first Christmas Eve with the people of Ascension, I have a sense that I need to experience this holy night with them before I can really feel like this is where I belong. And yet, there's another side to Christmas Eve that's so familiar to me that it doesn't really matter a rat's patootie where I am. On this holy night, I am transported to a holy place.

I’m talking about that transcendent moment in our worship that always seems to come crashing over me like an emotional tidal wave. If you’re a pastor, you probably know what I’m talking about. It’s that kairos moment when I stand behind the altar holding a lit candle in my hand, and I look out into the nave of the church, which is lit by hand-held candles like mine. With all the other people worshiping, we are creating a great sea of light shining in the darkness. And the words we sing squeeze my throat so tightly that I can hardly get them out:
Silent night, holy night!
Son of God, love’s pure light
radiant beams from your holy face,
with the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at your birth,
Jesus, Lord, at your birth.

It’s a moment like no other. And here’s the thing about it that just blows me away. I get to experience this blessed moment from a different vantage point than the rest of the congregation. From where I stand, behind the altar, I look out into the congregation and behold teary-eyed faces looking back at mine, each one illuminated by the small flame of a candle. I wish everyone in the congregation could have the opportunity to experience this as I do. I also wish I could hold onto this moment that rushes by so quickly that I can never fully absorb it.

This will be a mystical moment for me. I won’t only see the faces of those physically gathered in the candlelight. I'll see other people as well, including my daughter Gretchen, her husband Jon and sweet baby Nick, who was with me last Christmas Eve but will be in New York this year. I'll see my son Ben, too, although it's been a while since he was with me on a Christmas Eve. And in the sea of candlelight, I'll catch a glimpse of every face I have ever seen illuminated from that vantage point, from every congregation I've served over the past 40 years. They'll all be there. Folks from St. Martin's in Marine City, Michigan, where I interned. The dear people of Trinity, Jamestown, North Dakota, my first parish. All the congregations in Ohio where I spent Christmas Eves along the way: Trinity in Carrollton, Emmanuel in Kilgore, St. Paul in Waynesburg, Advent in Uniontown. And my church families in Charlotte, NC: Advent and Holy Trinity. I'll be seeing them clearest of all on Saturday night. I'll look out into the pews and see Mitchell, Bobbie, Sandy, Roy, Laura, Bailey, Joseph, Ruth, Tom, Linda, Sheila, Steve, Ryan, Ron, Bill, Corky... They will all be there, all the saints who have had such a profound affect on the person I've become. I know it will happen because it's happened to me so many times before.

This year, I'll be seeing new faces in the candlelight--the faces of my family at Ascension. Some of them I've come to know well in the few short months I've been here. Others are still relatively unknown to me. And yet, I know that as each year passes and I look out at them on Christmas Eve, our stories will intertwine, and I'll grow to love them more deeply.

In that radiant moment on Christmas Eve, the people of Ascension will never know that, when I look at them, I see them standing beside so many other people I love. I suppose if they read this blog they may think of it, but I hope that, like me, they'll be caught up in their own radiant moment, as we're being washed with the light of "Silent Night."

Let me assure you that I’m a relatively sane person. I don’t see people who aren’t there. I will see these people because they are there. The light of God that shines in my life has come to me through these blessed people who have been a part of my life. I’m looking forward to being with them again this Christmas Eve, even if only for that brief, holy moment.

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