Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Oh Not-so-Holy Night

Being a Baptist preacher came be a trying time at the Christmas season. Especially if you try to haul some wonder and mystery into the house. It all began in my first church way out in the country. There was little festivity in that little clapboard church and so I decided that back of the pulpit where everyone could see would be a great place for a large Christmas wreath. Maybe the wreath could add a little Christmas spirit. Single-handed I took a hula-hoop and around it I wrapped greenery and greenery. I stood back and it look, I thought fantastic. So on the first Saturday before the first Sunday of Advent I got a ladder, went down to the church and put our Christmas wreath up. I was so proud of myself—I thought. But I didn’t reckon with the fact that a hula-hoop has little support. Every Sunday of Advent the wreath sagged more and more until it looked more a Christmas oval than a wreath.

That same year my wife was directing the choir—or trying to. The Choir had no robes and so we thought it would be great to get those “Sing and Sew” outfits and let the Choir make their own robes. They were so proud of their efforts and so that same oval-shaped Christmas, the Choir would wear their robes for the first time. My wife had instructed the women not to wear long dangly earrings or necklaces because they would take away from the robes. So that Sunday morning they marched by the beginning-to-sag wreath and sure enough the women had obeyed my wife’s order about the jewelry. But nobody had mentioned hats. And robed Thelma marched in with the biggest fuscia hat you’ve ever seen. Young and foolish, I was in a snit that Christmas. Looking back I think Jesus just might have approved of our efforts.

I could write a whole chapter on Advent wreaths. No liturgists that I know of have written a piece on “How to Make Sure You Get Candles that will Light.” I don’t know how many years one and sometimes more of the candles just would not light. The most heart-breaking Christmas Eve was the year a family came down the darkened aisle at the beginning of the service with a lighted candle. They had been selected to light the Advent wreath as the choir snag softly in the balcony: “This Little Light of Mine.” All went well until the daughter was given the candle to light the wreath. It didn’t work. She tried and tried. Her parents whispered to each other and then to her. She tried again. Finally in desperation she blew out the candle, threw it on the floor, said a loud, “Damn” and stalked off as her family still stood at the front. How’s that for openers on Christmas Eve?

One year we put candles down all the aisles and as one man started to move from the pew to the front to take Communion he knocked over the candled and it fell to the floor and he stomped and stomped until he put it out.

Another year the church was breath taking on Christmas Eve. We had luminaries all up and down the walk leading into the church. The Foyer was only lit by candles. You entered the Sanctuary where the only lights came from the ten-foot Chrismon tree and just enough light to get to your pew. We were ready for Christmas Eve and the Church was all dressed up for Jesus’ birthday. I went to put on my robe and when I returned every light in the house was on. It almost blinded you. Some engineer had muttered as he reached for the light switch: “You can’t see your hands in front of your face.” So much for pageantry.

The scariest event though happened the Sunday after Christmas. In October we had just finished our new sanctuary and everybody was so proud. We decorated this new space with all the festivity we could think of. And on the Sunday after Christmas, we lit all five of the Advent candles and they all burned. In fact they burned too long. The service ended, everybody went our separate ways. And the Custodian called me the next morning and said: “We’ve had a fire down here. Somebody forgot to blow out the candles on the Wreath—they burned all the way down, burned through the Communion table, burned the carpet underneath and I guess it must have been fire-retardant carpet-it burned itself out.” I rushed down to the church and sure enough we had had a fire. The whole placed smelled like smoke. The hand-made Communion table fashioned especially for us had a hole all the way through. The carpet was ruined.

We had a crew that spent a week de-smoking the place, getting out the smoke smell from the padded pews. Our carpet had to be replaced and the sanctuary had to be repainted. The man that had made our beautiful Communion table said he would make another.But the point is: Never leave the Advent candles burning! We Baptists missed that lesson.

But like The Best Christmas Pageant Ever  reports:  "Christmas comes, maybe not the way we expected. “Mary is always going to look a lot like Imogene Herdman—sort of nervous and bewildered, but ready to clobber anyone who laid a hand on her baby. And the Wise Men are always going to be Leroy and his brothers, bearing a ham. And the Angel of the Lord, mean old Gladys with her skinny legs and dirty sneakers sticking out from under her robe, yelling at all of us, everywhere: “Hey, Unto you a child is born!”

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