Wednesday, December 15, 2004

A Christmas Memory

In one of my earliest memories, I am an angel. Not a real one, or course, but one in a Nativity play at church. I was 4 years old and very excited to be an angel for Christmas. My friend Missy was an angel as well. I said, "Glory to God in the Highest!" She answered "Peace on Earth to men of good will!" At the time I thought the line meant the men at the Goodwill Store where my mother and I dropped off items for the poor of Atlanta. I wondered why we didn't want peace to the women of Goodwill as well. It was a mystery, but 4 year olds are used to not understanding everything and just accepting that the adults seemed to know what they were doing.

My friend Missy was very special to me. She and I were born on the same day at the same hospital. This connected us at a strange and primal level. We were closer than friends, but not quite sisters. Missy moved when I was 6 years old and I remember the pain and anguish I suffered. 6 year old children can feel grief as acutely as adults and have less skills to process the loss. I could only trust the adults that told me that time would heal and hoped that they knew what they were doing.

We practiced our play every Sunday after Thanksgiving. We worked on the songs and our lines and were fitted with costumes. The older children were Mary and Joseph, the wise men and the shepherd, but Missy and I had a very important part. We were to stand on our boxes on either side of the manger, hold our hands up and say our lines. I remember wondering why I didn't have a wand. I confused fairies with angels. It was year' before I realized that they were different. I was so sad that Tinkerbell wasn't really an angel.

Missy and I practiced our lines and practiced going down the aisle and standing on our boxes. We never saw the entire play -- we concentrated on learning our lines. The night of the performance was very cold and dark. Our little church didn't have a narthex like modern churches have -- we had a small vestibule. To get to the vestibule we had to leave the warmth and the light of our Sunday School room and enter into the cold and dark world outside. My father picked me up in his strong arms and carried me to the front of the church. He didn't want me to stumble on a rock or damage my angel wings. We waited in the cold, dark December night for our cue in enter into the sanctuary. I put my head on his shoulder as he pointed out the stars in the night sky. "Look! There's Orion. And next to him is Taurus the Bull. There's the moon. Isn't it beautiful tonight?" The moon was hazy from the cold and high clouds. We looked at the stars for several minutes, shivering and getting thoroughly chilled. When it was time to go in, I was basked in the warmth of the vestibule and the glow of the red carpet in the light. My father put me down and took his seat. Missy and I held hands as we walked down the aisle. The little church was very full that night. I trembled with stage fright. I didn't realize that there were going to be so many people! I stopped when I realized that they were all looking at Missy and myself with smiles on their faces and with eyes of love. They were so very quiet. We took our places on the boxes. I was on the left and Missy on the right. We began with the reading of Luke 2. At the appropriate places, the older children would say their lines. I had never experienced the story told this way. I looked at the baby in the manger, surrounded by Mary and Joseph, the wise men and the shepherd. I could feel from the congregation waves of warmth, of love, of reflective contemplation and most of all of worship. There was the smell of the candles and fir, there was a warm glow from the dimmed overhead lights and the candles, there was the silent attention from the congregation and I felt worship. When I said "Glory to God in the Highest", I glorified my God. At four years old, I knew the Glory of God. It was a mystery, I didn't understand how a baby so small could be God, but I knew the Glory of God was in that manger.

There was reverent silence after we finished. There was no applause -- it would not have been right. My father gathered me up in his arms, took me back to the pew and placed me between himself and my mother. I stood in the pew as the light was passed from candle to candle and the overhead lights were dimmed. We sang Silent Night and I cried from the beauty of it. I still cry at true worship. I long for the pure innocent experience of worship I felt when I was four. I long for the warmth and the light of that little church, standing as a beacon in an cold dark world. Worship is why I am here. Worship is what I was made for.

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