War. Talk of war. Climate change. Talk of ecological disaster. Taxes. Talk of a nation facing bankruptcy. Sometimes it can all seem too much.
There’s a safe place I go to in my head which I want to share with you, only this time I am about to jump on a plane to actually go there.
Candle light plays on the fat, comforting stone pillars, as it has done for nearly a thousand years. The warm glow of the candles kicks off the sheen on the old oak pews and the choir processes up the aisle of the old Norman Church in my village back in England. Midnight Mass in an English country village, packed to the rafters with worshippers. Tell that to those who say Britain is a post-religious country!
It will have been six months since I was there last. Working in New York is a wonderful experience but it is time to head back (briefly ) to "The Source" – the source of where my faith and the faith of my children grew over 20 years. And somehow it all comes together in that glorious, exhilarating hour and a half that leads us from Christmas Eve into Christmas Day.
The Parish Church of St. Andrew and St. Cuthman is at the heart of the village of Steyning, six miles inland in the English county of West Sussex. Draw a line straight down from London until you hit the sea and you’ll hit us. A Norman castle (or what is left of it) is close by, and the gravestone of Ethelwulf, father of King Alfred who saved England from the Vikings is there. Yes, Christians have worshipped here from before the Norman Conquest in 1066, and Saxon villagers will have made their way to the spot I am heading to to welcome the birth of The Savior, dating back to the 9th Century. Yes, back to the source.
But it’s not about history. True, sometimes as I stand in the pews I find myself imagining how Normans have looked upon the same pillar that I am looking at, but it is the people next to me that really connect me to the source. All three of my daughters grew up in this church. All three were baptized there. Sarah, now 18, was in my arms as a baby when I read a lesson on Jesus’ love for children. Rhiannon and Francesca and Sarah all joined the choir at age 8 and like me they will be heading home from their universities, scattered across England and Scotland to put on their choir robes and come back to the source of their faith. During one Midnight Mass Rhiannon sang a duet ("The Holly and the Ivy") with her little sister whilst in her full Goth make-up phase. Quite a sight! But the point is, whatever phase they were going through, the choir was always somewhere they would come back to, to find that kick of fellowship, friendship and belonging whilst their lives whirled dramatically, sometimes confusingly, outside the walls of the church. And Midnight Mass was where it all came together. They wouldn’t miss it for the world. And neither would I.
Yes, Britain’s faith is very different from the faith I find in America, but it is far from being the faithless, post-religious society it is sometimes condemned as. St Andrews will be packed, and the joy at being there is infectious. The farmers will have come in from the hillside farms, the commuters will be back from London and everyone will be welcoming, smiling at strangers, shaking hands and maybe even offering an un-British emotional hug for friends and family. As midnight draws near the choir will get restless, just as it has done ever since I have been going--over 20 years. The reason? They will have smuggled small presents in under their choir robes and at midnight, proceed to pass them along the choirstalls, each wanting to be the first to wish each other a happy Christmas. They don’t think we in the pews notice, but we do, and we love it, seeing the excitement and joy it brings. If the choirmaster notices, he never lets on.
And when the minister bids us “Merry Christmas” and sends us out into the cold night of Christmas Morning, we are buzzing like children, wide awake and full of laughter, singing the carols again as we weave our way down to our cars parked opposite on St. Cuthman’s Field, or walk back over the little wooden bridge over a stream to our houses close by. And the moon shines down from a jet black sky and the stars are brighter than at any time of the year...or so it always seems.
OK, so the church won’t be that full the next week, and maybe even less full the next month, but think what that moment, Midnight Mass, has done. It has filled the hearts of everyone there with joy and a sense of peace, of happiness. We have given joy to one another. It is totally exhilarating. And no Xbox or iPad in sight. That feeling will provide a memory to tap into all year long.
So it is back to Midnight Mass at St. Andrew and St. Cuthman’s. I go there in my head many times during the year to find that feeling of belonging and of utter peace and contentment. This year it will be even more special. Francesca (age 18) is Head Chorister. Her voice will rise beautifully and play amongst the pillars and the vaulting and the candles, and will bathe everything in golden, restful light. I can see it now, I can hear it now--and the taxi is here to take me to the airport to take me there for real.
CEO, Odyssey Networks
The Parish Church of St. Andrew and St. Cuthman, Steyning, West Sussex, England
Blog post originally published on The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good