Yesterday was one of my favourite days in the pre-Christmas rush, the day when the morning service is taken by the Sunday School (if you are blessed with one; for me this was the first time since I left Manchester...) and the evening is the carol service (or candles by carol-light or lessons and carols or some variation on the same theme).
I love the children's nativity service, always slightly unpredictable - we had our own minor panic when the Virgin Mary was sick the day before (quite apposite I'd have thought...) and we had one uncooperative shepherd who chose to hide under a chair for part of the service - and always guaranteed to evoke lots of emotion in the congregation, perhaps recalling when they, too, were 'third angel from the right' or bravely announced in their best voice 'we have no room.' O maybe, like me, it is because such an event marked the start of their own (conscious at any rate) faith journey. I love the earnest faces of little children, of the six-year old Mary who whispers her 'yes' to God's call on her life, the over-exuberant boy-Joseph who drags his expectant wife at high speed along the road to Bethlehem, of the coy-preteen playing wise-man three or arch-angel Gabriel and hoping no-one from school sees them in a halo or crown, and so on and so on (not all of these were evident yesterday but they were out there somewhere). I love the mix of mystery and wonder, of make-believe and truth and the sense that God is at work.
And I love the carol service, the walk through dark streets (and yesterday with snow falling) into the cosiness of the church where the participants wait in quiet expectation. The pre-service buzz of chatter stills and we find ourselves drawn gently through familiar readings and carols, blended with some newer material (which depending on location could be film, drama, choir, poetry or prose). Yesterday our first reading, the prologue to John, was read in a rich, velvety Welsh accent by one of our members, and I was, momentarily transported to any small Victorian chapel with hard, polished pews, a draught round my feet, and secure familiarity of church tradition: 'hear, then the word of the Lord according to the gospel of John...' A carol later and the delightful rawness of a child's east Glasgow accent led us through the Isaiah 11 'stump of Jesse' reading. Again, in my mind's eye I was transported elsewhere, to school halls with their familiar smell of disinfectant, boiled cabbage and wax-crayon, to the uncertain enunciation of strange words and the chest-bursting pride of being asked to read. As our reader finished, she paused for half a second, uncertain what to do next, then she said 'and that's it' before she sat down. And so it continued, the lovely blending of a choir of children from a less privileged part of town with the adult voices of two church choirs, the familiar Bible texts in assorted British accents, the reflective pieces from diverse theological stables...
And that's it... another year's carol services are done and dusted. The magic happens (and I don't apologise for using that word - the word Magi has the same root), we are drawn beyond ourselves to other times and places, connected or re-connected with those who share our faith, and, mysteriously, encounter again the God who chooses to be born as a baby. And that's it... that's the point.
I have no idea what the little girl who uttered those words last night might be doing today, or will be doing over Christmas. I cannot know what her life is like now or how it will work out. But last night, in a moment of uncertainty over what to do next, her words made so much sense. 'A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse...' and that's it. That's what we commemorate, that's what we celebrate, that's what we anticipate. Amen and amen.