Wednesday, December 23, 2009

When darkest was the night

One of the reasons I like to be here in Conway for Christmas is the St. Peter's Christmas Eve service. Growing up, we usually had an evening church service and then a Christmas Day afternoon service with communion. But I had never gone to midnight services before I got here.

Our handbell choir usually plays -- another good reason to be at home, since it's difficult for a handbell choir to function with members missing. This year we're doing only one piece, but it's a showstopper: a version of "We Three Kings" performed with mallets banging on the tables and each other in a drumline fashion.

What's best about the midnight service, though, is the darkness. The winter solstice has just passed, and the night is at its longest and deepest. The whole service is cloaked in shadow, with only a few candles at the beginning, with more lit as Christmas, and Christ's advent, approaches. Carols quaver from the unlit pews. Scripture is read. And as the clock ticks toward the very heart of the night, we sit in silence and wait.

I'll be in the sanctuary for about three hours tomorrow and on into the day after tomorrow, all told. Between showing up early for a last handbell practice, the Christmas cantata before the service begins, and the lengthy readings and Eucharist, it's one of the longest nights of the year. But that's as it should be. That's what we're celebrating -- the arrival of light in the midst of the deepest darkness. That's what cultures the world over celebrate at this time of year, and that's the archetypal symbolism that Christians have found so congenial for their celebration of Emmanuel, God with us.

There's no place I'd rather be.

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