The Occasional Shippment

Occasional thoughts from a young adult reveling in the messiness of life.

A Tale of Three Churches

It was truly the best of times.

When 2013 began, I couldn’t have imagined that this was how I would spend my Christmas Eve. I started that year far from church, and in some ways, far from God. But it came to pass, on Christmas Eve, that I would experience three different services, in three different churches, in two different states.

One of the priests (who knew my plans for the day) joked that I should write a review of each service. That would be easy enough. I could absolutely say which had the best sermon, best advent wreath, best vestments, best music, etc., but that would reduce the experience to so much less than it was:

The First Service

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There’s truly no place like home, and I got to celebrate the first service at my church home here in Atlanta. This was the first year that I got to attend a Christmas Eve service there, as my husband and I are usually traveling. Ingeniously, this church added a “travelers service,” so I was able to attend.

But I got to do more than attend, and it was the first time that I would be a lector, reading one of the passes during the service. I was incredibly excited to be asked, but that excitement turned to nervousness as the day drew nearer.

It’s a big, beautiful church, and the Christmas Eve service is a special one. I practiced and practiced the reading in the days leading up to the service. But even so, my heart started pounding as soon as I entered the church that morning. I sat in the front pew and tried to center myself. Christmas hymns rang out from the bell tower. Bells turned into organ music, and that led into the service. We began with a favorite hymn of mine, O Come, All Ye Faithful, and as the service progressed, the pounding in my chest grew stronger.

As I stepped up to the lectern, I looked out and saw so many friendly faces…my church family…and I felt at home. I began with “A reading from Isaiah…” and did the best I could to bring the reading to life. It was an amazing experience to read the Word of the Lord.

At the end of the service, there were hugs and smiles all around as we wished each other a Merry Christmas. Surrounded by those who have walked with me throughout this amazing year on my spiritual journey…I felt that peace and joy that can only come in a church home. It was a wonderful way to begin celebrating this wonderfully holy day.

The Second Service

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A few hours later, I found myself at the church where my husband works. It is a wonderful church filled with young families, and this was the service with the children’s Christmas pageant. I arrived to a sea of people, in a sanctuary filled with joyful energy. I joked that the church should be renamed from St. Anne’s to St. Ant Farm, as there were little ones crawling around everywhere. You could feel the excitement in the air.

My hubby and the new children’s director had been charged with creating the “best Christmas pageant” that church had ever seen, and they pulled it off. With my penchant for photography and the decidedly less formal feel of this particular service, I had agreed to take pictures. The new format and script for the pageant was a hit. Everyone was laughing throughout as the kids brought the story to life.

As an added bonus, this was one of the few times that my husband and I could worship together. In between my photographing and his directing, we managed to sing a few hymns together and hold hands as we prayed. As the clergy and children processed out at the end of the service, I couldn’t help but be filled yet again with the joy and wonder of the season. There is truly something special about little children and Christmas.

The Third Service

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After a nearly three hour drive, we arrived in Birmingham to see my parents.  As is our tradition, my husband and I dropped our bags as soon as we arrived, changed our clothes, hung out with my parents for a short while and then headed to the church where I was baptized. It is the service I look forward to all year.

In years past, the service has been downright magical. Trumpets sounded out the coming of the Christ child. The tympani resonated throughout the sanctuary. The strings in the orchestra sweetly sounded Silent Night by the candlelight. The pews were packed with expectant parishioners ready to rejoice. The feeling of Christmas was always thick in the air.

But this time, it was different. There were no trumpets, no strings, no tympani. The sanctuary was barely full. There hung a slight question mark in the air. We could tell something was different, but we couldn’t figure out what would cause such a drastic change in a single year. Even as we sat there in the sea of change, we at least got to sit together, for a full service. We sang our favorite hymns and kneeled by candlelight during Silent Night.

As I contemplated the changes, I almost felt like it was the perfect metaphor for this past year and perhaps for where I am headed in 2013. So much remains the same, but nothing stays the same forever.

*********

In attending three services back to back, I did notice little differences that wouldn’t normally stand out. But what struck me the most were the similarities, and it reminded me of one thing I love about the Episcopal Church: no matter where you worship, you are always connected to worshippers near and far.

And so it was, with three O Come, All Ye Faithfuls, three Silent Nights, three Hark! The Herold Angels Sing, three readings from Isaiah, three visits to the Lord’s Table, three communities in which to hear the Good News of Great Joy.

Joy to the world! The Lord is come!

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3 comments on “A Tale of Three Churches

  1. Lon
    January 8, 2013

    Loved this! Thanks for sharing.

    • JZ
      January 9, 2013

      Thanks, Lon! It was a truly amazing thing to experience. I highly recommend!

      • Lon
        January 15, 2013

        When I was in college, I did a similar thing going between several Lutheran churches on Reformation Day. (I played trumpet back then, and there was a demand for “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” with trumpet & organ.

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