(Originally posted December 22, 2013)*
One small voice, belonging to a 12-year old boy, begins to sing…
Once in royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little Child.
Other young boys join in, followed by the full choir, followed by the congregation, as the throng of Choristers and Acolytes and Priests make their way forward…
The place is Kings College Chapel, in Cambridge, England. The time is a minute or two after 3 p.m. London time on Christmas Eve. The occasion is “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.” And for this crusty curmudgeon, it is, quite simply, the best worship service on the planet.
Listening on Christmas Eve mornings to the local airing (WDAV-FM 89.9 Classical Public Radio) of BBC’s live worldwide broadcasts never fails to just leave me breathless, shedding more than a tear or two, trying to grasp my being blessed to savor something I suspect is akin to Heaven.
As the last strands of Processional fade and all are in place, the Dean offers “The Bidding Prayer,” a distinctly Anglican tradition of calling to God’s assembled people to petition the Divine for a particular purpose on a particular occasion. While certain parts change each year, most of the words to this opening “bidding” for lively worship is set in timeless stone, an annual reminder of the poignant and profound beauty that can be found in the words of the Liturgy.
“BELOVED IN CHRIST,” proclaims the Dean in perfect English accent and cadence, “…be it this Christmas Eve our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the angels…” He urges worshipers to “make this Chapel…glad with our Carols of praise,” and then calls for a series of lovely intercessions. We are bid to pray “…because this of all things would rejoice His heart, to remember in His name the poor and the helpless…the lonely and unloved…them that mourn…(and) all who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have grieved his heart of love…”
And then the flood gates of tears open. Especially compelling for me each year is the penultimate paragraph, a call for us to “Lastly, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light…“
Oh, my. Thinking of that image of the precious departed — close friends and beloved family — rejoicing together on some distant shore, bathed and basking in God’s perfect light of Love…it is is just overwhelming. But even more than that, to ponder them rejoicing with us, as we — on this side of Heaven — gather for Christmas reunion and worship, is often a vision just too wonderful for me to bear.
Such a grand thing can often be beyond my ability, or willingness, or both, to even contemplate. Such blessings are too good, too fulfilling, too delightful, too perfect…too much. As the old hymn says, “I scarce can take it in…” much less build my life around.
After all, there are times when the Christmas story, quite frankly, seems utterly absurd. It is as if the Celestial Master of Ceremonies is saying to us — “Ladies and gentlemen! Now appearing for the consideration of Humankind, please behold the Omnipotent Creator played on this silent night by a helpless infant of an impoverished, unwed peasant girl under bitter political oppression.” Very strange, indeed.
BUT — there are also these unsettling moments of crystalline clarity, moments that compel me to ask whether a Divine Creator, seeking to be made manifest to our world, could possibly have it any other way? How could a Perfectly Loving God better show us Infinite Love, how could a Benevolent Creator more perfectly demonstrate Intimate Presence than by and through Emmanuel — “God With Us” — in the midst of muddled human messiness? Indeed, isn’t it with our raunchy, imperfect, faithless foibles of human “stuff” that our Loving God somehow does His (or Her) very best work?
That’s why the tears tend to flow on Christmas Eve mornings, as I listen again to the broadcast from across the pond. I am reminded of that which is all too easy and convenient to forget, that “too wonderful” Truth (with a capital “T”) that God, in God’s perfect and relentless Love, beckons me home for Christmas, and every other day of the year.
Beyond The Bidding Prayer, the service continues with “Lessons” of Scripture to “mark the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child” separated by “Carols” of exquisite choral music that offers us a glimpse of the Divine Mystery.
All serve to overflow my cup even more.
The service ends each year with boisterous singing by all assembled — choir, clergy and congregation — of the traditional “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing,” sending the worshppers off into the lengthening Christmas Eve shadows of Cambridge.
It is the perfect send-off for me each year as well, to deal with the lengthening shadows of my life. I do again blessed beyond measure with yet another glimpse of God With Us, a reminder of the marvelous Mystery that our God, beyond all reason, somehow still seems to be…
“Pleased with Man, as Man to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.”
God. With. Us.
I scarce can take it in.
The words above were first published on December 22, 2013. The reason I am re-posting them now is because this worship service will undoubtedly become even more important for me this year. I have the truly blessed opportunity to actually be in Cambridge, England sitting in the St. Mary’s Chapel of Kings College to listen and participate in this remarkable service. To hear it broadcast is one thing; to actually be there is something altogether different. — mcd 12/18/2017