by Larry Patten
For a few years at a church where I was the minister, a thirty-something man sang Ava Maria at the Christmas Eve service. Sometimes, his name was listed in the worship bulletin; sometimes he unexpectedly appeared and we’d let him sing. Of course we would! I will call him John, if only to honor the opening chapter of John. Every Advent and Christmas, the Gospel of John beckons believers into the season:
In the beginning was the Word
and the word was with God
and the Word was God . . .
It was a Protestant congregation, and yet there was John, crooning the most Roman Catholic of songs about a maiden and her child:
Ave Maria! maiden mild!
Listen to a maiden’s prayer!
Thou canst hear though from the wild;
Thou canst save amid despair.
Safe may we sleep beneath thy care,
Though banish’d, outcast and reviled –
Maiden! hear a maiden’s prayer;
Mother, hear a suppliant child!
John struggled with addiction. He would appear in the non-Ava Maria seasons, present for a few Sundays in a row, perhaps singing in the choir, and then—for months—disappearing. He sporadically worked, with a mix of rumors that his family was wealthy and sent him money. I’d worry about him. I’d forget about him. I still wonder, especially during the Decembers that have come and gone, what happened to him? The last time I saw John was the last Christmas Eve I did at that small, rural church.
In the darkened sanctuary, candles flickering, Advent banners lazily waving from the rafters, the ragtag congregation seated and expectant, John would sing. He didn’t rehearse. He had no accompaniment. Singing a cappella, the verses memorized, John mesmerized us. Hair disheveled, wearing a frayed sports coat, eyes bloodshot, he sounded like the proverbial angel. I always imagined he’d sung Ave Maria as a youngster, with adoring adults in a bygone church praising John’s cherubic voice.
The word—the Word, as in Christmas’ Holy possibility and Holy longing—seemed to become flesh as John sang. With the passage of time, do I make it a more profound and sublime experience than it was all those years ago? Maybe. Or maybe not.
I hear John sing.
I recall those faces in the dimly lit sanctuary. They are old and young, perfectly coiffed and casually dressed, first-time visitors and veteran pew-sitters. They are squirming in their seats, or barely able to keep their eyes open. They have had a dismal year and a delightful year. They are recently widowed or just married. They still haven’t told anyone about their cancer diagnosis. Some dread opening the mailbox where another crushing bill waits. The kids are eager to get home. Their weary parents can’t remember being eager about anything.
How sweet and soaring the words! Music, like nothing else, touches the deepest crevices of our souls. The Word can become flesh by way of a perfect baritone. We are, if only briefly, reminded of splendor. Reminded of hope. Reminded that the sum of our dreary broken hearts, and dull-witted accumulation of bad decisions, and our litany of excuses and failures, don’t matter in the Holy math of a merciful God.
For precious moments, John’s voice carried us. Reminded us. Encouraged those of us—all of us—who were discouraged. In the darkness of Christmas Eve, we believed in the light that would come to all people.
I can be cynical about what we’ve done to this fragile season. Cynicism is always easy.
I can be sarcastic about all the nonsense concocted to celebrate (and go into more debt over) this fragile season. Sarcasm is always easy.
I can be critical of the strange sidekicks—the Frosty the Snowman’s and Santa’s oddly-named reindeer—that are hyped to falsely brighten this fragile season. Criticism is always easy.
All of us, I believe, listened.
How true and clear the song was, and cynicism lost its luster. How lovely it was, and sarcasm was discarded. How honest it was, and criticism faded as the tune filled the sanctuary.
In this fragile season, boldly light the candles. Sing the songs. Read the oft-read scriptures. Welcome in the poor and the poor in spirit. Welcome in the ones who don’t want to be there and the ones who are always there. Welcome in the weary and frightened. Welcome in the drunk and derelict. Welcome in the losers and the unloved.
The preacher preaches.
The singer sings.
A Christ candle is lighted.
The Word became flesh and made his home among us.
And still does.
Larry Patten is a retired United Methodist pastor living in Fresno, California. He has worked in churches, hospices, and campus ministry. His writing has appeared in publications such as The Christian Century, Spirituality & Health, and Ruminate. He is the author of A Companion for the Hospice Journey.