Mary and I were talking about the challenges facing a pastor we know who now has two separate congregations. With the dwindling attendance in some denominational churches this is the most viable option for keeping doors open — have two churches share one pastor.
“What’s going to happen at Christmas?” Mary asked.
“I think it was going to work out,” I told her. “I know Pastor Amy was worried that neither congregation would be flexible with the way they’ve always done things, but they have a plan.”
“Did you see when the Methodist Church in Cooperstown has their services?” she asked. “It’s like 11 o’clock at night! Who would go to that?”
We had attended a non-denominational church on the outskirts of town for a long time and then lived in another town for a while. I realized that Mary didn’t know what Christmas Eve in the village of Cooperstown was like.
“A lot of people go,” I told her. “They call them midnight services, even though they begin at 11.”
I should caution you that it has been a long time since I’ve attended a midnight service — even the ones at 11 PM. I’m an early-to-bed-early-to-rise kind of person, so a Christmas Eve service at 7 or 8 PM suits me just fine.
And, in all honesty, I’ve read Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame more recently than I’ve been to a midnight service. Twice. A favorite chapter, odd as this may sound, is called “A Bird’s Eye View of Paris” and it ends with the ringing of the church bells all over the city.
— and then say if you know of anything on earth richer, more joyous, more mellow, more enchanting than this tumult of bells and chimes; than this furnace of music; than these ten thousand brazen voices singing together through stone flutes three hundred feet in length; than this city which is but an orchestra; than this symphony which roars like a tempest. (Hunchback)
So there’s a good possibility that I’m confusing the two in my mind. Or maybe even adding in a different holiday — New Year’s Eve, when I know the church bells in Cooperstown were rung. Plus, if Paris is an orchestra, Cooperstown is only a tiny ensemble.
But what I described to Mary was how after the service, with the last strains of Silent Night still sifting through my mind, after the cheery red candle that I had held in my hand was blown out and handed in, I would walk out the giant doors into the cold. The snow would be swirling around me, or falling in big wet flakes that landed on my eyelashes.
And the bells would begin.
First at St. Mary’s, calling the worshippers to church. The Catholics had a true midnight service.
Then other bells joined in — the Baptist Church, the Episcopal Church, maybe even the Methodist Church, though they were a little removed from the cluster, and the Presbyterian Church’s bell in its tall steeple, where we had to climb narrow winding stairs to even reach the rope that attached to it.
In my memory, it’s magical — as Christmas should be.
How else can we explain God becoming man?
The bells, in their many voices, cry, “Rejoice! Unto us a Child is born! Unto us a Son is given!”