I LIVE IN A SMALL VERMONT VILLAGE
and I just went out for a walk. The sun had not risen, the streets were cleared of the snow that fell all day yesterday. I walked over to the post office and put two cards in the mailbox. I walked to Judy's lamp shop and left a little gift on her door handle. I walked over to the church and looked at my name on the outside board.
I have been the pastor in this little town at the big white church on the hill for two years and eight months. Tomorrow will be my third Christmas Eve service.
The first year, on Christmas Eve, I was very nervous. I had no idea what to expect, or, really, what I was doing. I gathered information from other churches and other pastors to put the service together. When it started at 7:30 that evening, I could barely believe the sight: a church nave filled to capacity. Children making noise, some people dressed-up, some not, the joyful buzz of people greeting each other, kids home from college, families expanded with visiting relatives, the magic of Christmas humming everywhere.
My whole life growing up in Saratoga Springs, we went to the Catholic church. Many years on Christmas Eve we attended midnight mass, which I loved. I loved the carols and the incense. I loved that I was allowed to be up so late. Afterwards we had a snack back at home and were allowed to open one present.
It still amazes me, to think that we were probably up until after one in the morning on Christmas Eve, but was that our tradition.
I think a lot about all those years, sitting in the pew, and the weird and wonderful twisty path that has led me to standing in front of all the pews on Christmas Eve. I get goosebumps every time.
In case you don't imagine yourself ever standing at a pulpit on Christmas Eve and leading a worship service; in case you never have, I will tell you, as best I can, what it feels like.
You are nervous, of course, as you watch people arrive. Have you printed enough bulletins? Did you remember to choose good hymns? Did you put enough thought into the prayers? Is your message worth hearing?
Everyone is seated, it's time to begin, so you step up to the pulpit, which I still like to call the podium. And you welcome everyone and you cannot believe, inside your heart, that everyone is sitting there looking at you and listening to you.
You invite them to stand and sing Hark the Herald together and you are off and running. From there the service takes on a life of its own and your worries and anxiety turn into joy. Complete, full, from the center of your being to the tips of your fingers, joy.
It is, after all, Christmas Eve.
One prayer and two readings into it and you stand again, to sing Joy to the World. For a few lines you pretend to be singing so you can just listen. It's like that moment from The Grinch, when all the Whos down in Whoville lift their voices in song, even after all their presents have been stolen. That's how it feels. This is your community, these are your people, and they have all come here on this night, to be together and to share in the wonder. Their voices all united in old and familiar carols are magnificent.
You're not sure if your feet are touching the ground because it feels like you are floating, about three feet above the floor ... and heaven and nature sing ...
At the end of our service at the Pawlet Church, the lights are turned out and everyone walks to the periphery of the nave and the candle lighting starts. From one to the next, the flame is passed and here's the reason why you might want to consider the ministry as your next vocation: I head up to the balcony and from up there I watch and sing and try not to cry as our church, our community, our people sing Silent Night together, each person holding a candle, standing side-by-side, in a big circle.
All is calm, all is bright in those few moments. Our places of discord and disagreement dissolve, the ravages of our world are at bay, our broken hearts and tired souls are refreshed while our voices and our love fill the sanctuary.
I live in a small Vermont village and I am the pastor of the church on the hill. You are welcome here, always. Most especially on Christmas Eve. Amen.