Saturday, December 25, 2010

Memories of a Beautiful Christmas

What a wonderful time! On all sides, from the community and from our guests and from visitors and people who came for the Midnight Mass I hear what a beautiful time it was. And certainly that resonates with what I have been feeling.

To begin with there was a sharing at the heart of it. This year we decided to share our celebration with the Sisters of the Community of the Holy Spirit from Bluestone Farm in Brewster, New York, which is about an hour east of here. They are good friends of ours and we see them from time to time when they visit here or we go there. And we have some deep bonds with them in Suzanne Guthrie and Bill Consiglio who are Resident Companions of that community. They live there and share their lives with the sisters. Bill and Suzanne are also old, old friends of ours and Associates of our Community. Through the past few years both communities have talked about doing more together, and this year we decided that the time had come to do something major together - such as Christmas.

Of course, it had to be here: the Guesthouse business demanded the full attention of the Holy Cross brothers, so it only made sense that the sisters would come here. In the end they had a smaller presence than we had hoped because half of their community had a really severe virus and were too sick to travel. But two sisters, Sr Carol Bernice and Sr Helena Marie, came along with Suzanne and Bill, and their presence was a joyful deepening of our celebration.

For one thing, Sr Helena Marie is a very talented organist and her music was a tremendous addition to the Eucharist on Christmas Eve. Before the Eucharist began she was joined by Suzanne on the flute and our Br Andrew on his Celtic Harp and our friend Reynaldo Martinez Cubero who added his beautiful voice. They provided a grand program of music while we all waited for the beginning of the mass.

Just having other Religious with us really changed our experience of this feast. We made every effort to really include the sisters as part of a joint community celebration, and just making that effort, I think, had an effect on us. Whatever it was, it was very positive. At every turn I hear the monks saying what a difference it made to have the sisters with us, and I also hear the sisters, along with Bill and Suzanne, saying: "Now next year we can...." So I hope we've started something. And I think it will be something good.

The service itself was jammed. For several years attendance at the Christmas Eve worship has been declining. I've put it down to the growing interest in the music programs we provide, a number of which occur in Advent. I thought that was satisfying people's desire to come here for some worship. But apparently I mistook what was going on because Friday night they came.... and they came.... and they came. And still they kept coming. Out came the extra folding chairs. By this time we know how to shoe horn people into every available corner, so nearly everyone actually got in. But not everyone got a program, and a few of the late comers were standing in the entrance to the Church.

It was a grand time. The singing was superb. The atmosphere was joyful. And there was one very powerful moment for me. I was preparing the altar for communion and the congregation was singing "O Little Town of Bethlehem". I was washing my hands when they hit the verse:

Where children pure and happy pray to the blessed Child,
where misery cries out to thee, Son of the mother mild;
where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,
the dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.

Suddenly I wasn't in our church any longer. I was standing on the streets in the middle of the slums of Newburgh where we were on Sunday night two weeks ago helping to dedicate a shelter for homeless women. I could feel the cold and the only light I saw was the light of the street lamps and I felt the desolation of the neighborhood. For an instant I was there, not in the warm happy church where my body was. It lasted only an instant, but it changed the night for me. The night was bigger than where I was standing, and my reality expanded. And Christmas came once more.

One other thing that moved me greatly was that among the congregation on Christmas Eve were an Episcopal priest, a Methodist minister and two Reformed pastors. They were men and women who had worked all day and had provided worship for their congregations. They had to have been worn out, and they could easily have gone home and to bed. Instead late at night they had come to us so that they could join our worship and, in the words of two of them, "just be quiet and pray." If this is the atmosphere we have succeeded in providing, we have fulfilled many of the dreams we have had for this place.

Then the next morning it all came together for me. Every year we sing Matins late on Christmas morning, and not infrequently it is real work. The toll of a day of decorating, welcoming very large numbers of guests, being hospitable until about 2:00 am (we provide a reception after the Mass) and having too much sugar, combine to make prayer on Christmas morning something of a labor. Everyone is weary. Matins drags. Sometimes it even seems like quite a big drag.

This Christmas we were in the middle of the second Psalm when I realized: "Hey, wait a minute. This is beautiful." The tone was gentle and calm. The choir was together and the singing was light and exultant. Something was going on. A few minutes later we got to the Te Deum, which is an ancient hymn of praise. The music for it is moderately elaborate and something of a challenge for morning singing. Often enough I feel like I am wading through a swamp in hip boots when we sing it. This Christmas morning it soared.

Our offices are often really lovely. This exceeded all my expectations. It was what I have always wanted Christmas Matins to be like. The best part is that my heart was awake enough to take it all in.

What joy. After it was all over one of our friends told me that she had never seen me look so happy. It seems that there is a good spirit loose among us. May that spirit catch you as well during this season. And may we all spread it about. Then Christmas really can come once more.

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