Angels Amidst the Dark
I remember Christmas Eve services at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Endwell, New York. My father was the minister and I was in high school. My friends and I would sit in the same pew rather than with our parents. At the time, we were quite cool and utterly unaware of our shining youth and hopefulness. We were the gang—Steve and Jeff and Kathy and Lynne – the boys and the girls and the endless longing in between.
I did love the singing. Angels We Have Heard on High – ‘singing sweetly o’er the plain, and the mountains in reply, echoing their joyous strain’. The words and melody appear magically in my mind. Like my father after his stroke. When words had fled, he and I practicing slow walking down the corridor. One day I began to sing an old family song – a camp song. And my father who could barely shuffle his feet and had not spoken for days, smiled hugely and began singing with me – word perfect.
So even now the music and words of Christmas Eve are with me. Singing still, together in the dark night, listening to the familiar and comforting readings about ‘certain shepherds.’ Nowadays I wonder how certain they were. Those men in the cold fields watching over their flocks by night. When the angel of the Lord appeared and said ‘Fear not.’
Fear not. The angels of life are terrible and wonderful—descending and vanishing in their own times and places. Dark and light alternating endlessly. Fear not, for I bring you tidings of great joy. Fear not. In the midst of the dark and cold life and love itself are being born.
But I’m trying to get to the end of the service at Northminster—the part where we sang Silent Night. My father was talking about Christmas the day he died. He kept apologizing for ruining it. I found out later that in his middle family, it was a time of drinking and fits of terrible anger and depression. Not so lovely. But the attending minister at the hospital suggested we sing ‘Silent Night’ – and we did – his first family and his third family joining in together around his hospital bed. Minus the second family and our mother from the first family who weren’t invited.
I didn’t mean to get lost in the darkness of my father’s death again, but it is very present with me. Now his life AND his death are part of the story. The light and love he gave me. His passing was the loss of one of my biggest supporters – someone who never tired of telling me how proud he was of me, who I had become and what I had accomplished. And also the dark gifts – the family legacy of the terrible loneliness and longing – the breaking of vows and sacred trusts. All of this passed on to me.
But on Christmas Eve, at Northminster Church in the mid-1960’s, we would each have a small candle with a round circle of paper half-way up to (supposedly) catch the drips. My glowing father would light his candle from the altar and pass it on down the center aisle of the church and from there down each row until everyone who was old enough to stand on their own two feet would be holding a lit candle.
And then, my father, his face alight with joy above his black robe, would say some magic words to invite everyone to lift their candle up. And the whole sanctuary would glow – bright as day. Angels everywhere.