Thursday, December 29, 2011

Approaching Christmas Eve As The Perpetual Newcomer

I have issues with Christmas Eve, particularly the church service. That's the service when I discover that I, my wife and my kids, who have lived in this village for 14 years, are newcomers. I know because I'm told so. The sanctuary fills with people who make this their yearly service, and to whom I, the regular attender, need introducing. Pleasantries get exchanged, and inevitably I hear, “It's nice to see new faces.”

Indeed, Christmas Eve is the one night I wouldn't mind hanging out with my peeps, the Mennonites, if only because we know how to sing. If we must sing hoary old Christmas carols, let's at least dress 'em up with competent four-part harmonies. Alas, my closest tribe of robust singers is a three-hour drive away, and taking pleasure in a once-a-year appearance there would be too bitter an irony for my taste. Instead, it's the local United (formerly Methodist) Church for me, where the musical mode is what you'd encounter at any mainstream Protestant congregation: songs with which I'm unfamiliar, being wheezily sung in lockstep unison.

Yet here I was last Saturday, surprised to find myself actively enjoying the Christmas Eve service. Preempted from my usual pew, I sat in an unusual spot in the sanctuary, and discovered a bizarre convergence of acoustics and sound-system manipulation uniquely attuned to the choir, so I was able to hear the harmonies of the songs being sung. And I was charmed by the unfamiliar carols, including this one:

All Poor Ones and Humble

All poor ones and humble
and all those who stumble
come hastening, and feel not afraid;
for Jesus our treasure,
with love past all measure,
in lowly poor manger was laid.
Though wise men who found him
laid rich gifts around him,
yet oxen they gave him their hay,
and Jesus in beauty
accepted their duty, contented in manger he lay.
Then haste we to show him
the praises we owe him;
our service he ne'er can despise;
whose love still is able
to show us that stable,
where softly in manger he lies.
The Christ Child will lead us,
the Good Shepherd feed us
and with us abide till his day.
Then hatred he'll banish,
then sorrow will vanish,
and death and despair flee away.
And he shall reign ever,
and nothing shall sever
from us the great love of our King;
his peace and his pity
shall bless his fair city;
his praises we ever shall sing.
Then haste we to show him
the praises we owe him;
our service he ne'er can despise;
whose love still is able
to show us that stable,
where softly in manger he lies.
Words: v.1 Katharine Emily Roberts 1927, alt, v.2 William Thomas Penmar Davies 1951
Music: Welsh carol, harm. Erik Routley 1951

The final four stanzas are the chorus, and both times as I approached, “Our service he ne'er can despise,” I choked up.

Since then I've mused over the words and tune, trying to understand exactly what hit the emotional sweet-spot for me. Usually it's my own cynicism I'm choking on whenever I encounter a Disneyfied Nativity Scene; oxen offering up their hay to the Christ child gets me wondering if we won't soon encounter Sleepy, Dopey, Doc and Grumpy among the fabled wise men (who never made it to the manger in any of the gospel accounts).

The second verse is a howler, alright. So it has to be the first and the chorus that caught and kept me off-guard. Married to an ancient Welsh tune, in which the harmonies are easy to hit, the word that, “Jesus, our treasure, with love past all measure . . . our service he ne'er can despise,” was a welcome Christmas message to my ears.

God knows my idea of service is a cautious and miserly bit of business. My bristling hesitance to greet the village's seventh generation — “new faces” to me — is just one example. But these are the small acts on which we slowly build what community we can, hoping against hope that even this frugal service might ne'er be despised.


paul bowman said...

For the last few years, I've been really the perpetual newcomer in the churches I'm rotating among, more or less irregularly at alternating stretches. I ought to say more about it — have thought about what to say about it often enough — but haven't had a very settled understanding of my own mind on the subject a good deal of this time.

The services I have the hardest time getting myself to are (have always been, even as a stalwart member) Christmas and Easter. My head gets that people showing up only once or a few times a year is reason itself to participate, if indeed church isn't only about private spiritual experience. But my heart isn't in it. Distaste for crowds (heightened already this time of year) comes into it, and well-justified fear that what I like about church will be obscured kicks up in a big way. I stayed home this Christmas, after failing to rouse myself in time for the 7:30 Mass. Not proud of it, but not feeling, truthfully, like I missed something important either. Yet it's far from out of mind.

Whisky Prajer said...

I can relate. In my case, there's also something of The Older Brother (to the Prodigal) at work in my attitude. The rest of my Sunday mornings are devoted to meditating on the significance of Christmas and Easter, and further attuning myself to that light and life in to my daily concerns: why must I bother myself with the big hoo-roo that pulls in the masses who couldn't be arsed?

Also, I wonder if being a child of church doesn't figure in. Christmas and Easter were celebrated with goodies, but then we had to sober up and put on the monkey suit for church -- a little bit of medicine for what was otherwise a day of pure sugar. Boo!

Su said...

Religious services can mean different things to different individuals. It's one of the most fascinating topics of conversation I've had with friends. A life-long Jewish friend was not aware of something I, a newly converted Jew, knew about. Yet we both pull new astonishments out of the same prayers that we both hear, apparently for the first time. Crazy business. :)