by STEVE CARPENTER
Early on the morning of Christmas Eve day, my wife Chris and I began our journey from the Shenandoah Valley north by car. We left before breakfast in order to reach our destination, in the piney woods of Chepachet, R.I., in time for an early dinner with my brother, his partner Emily and my 90-year-old mother. We planned to attend a candlelight service later that evening. Traveling on Interstate 95, we rolled along smoothly, and crossed the problematic bottleneck at the George Washington Bridge north of Manhattan without delay.
After a lovely dinner we loaded Mom and her walker into the car and arrived 15 minutes before the service was to begin. The church, located in a quaint New England town, was festooned with holiday decorations. But the thing that made the service so memorable was not the decorations, the stained glass, the organ playing or the traditional singing of “Silent Night” while holding a lighted candle. It was the presence and participation of children.
Many of the youngsters were so excited about the fast approaching holiday they could hardly stay in their seats. Several older children participated in the service. One enthusiastically read the story of Jesus’ birth from a children’s Bible. Another sang a lovely solo, while yet another played the clarinet. But, the highlight for me occurred when all of the children joined the co-pastor upfront for a children’s story. She engaged them deeply by seeking their help to recreate the manger scene. One by one she invited each child to select a loosely wrapped item from her bag and place it on the table up front. After the donkeys, camels, wise men, shepherds and others were in place she asked the youngest children to mimic the Magi of old and search for the baby Jesus. When they found him they were to place the baby in the manger.
The thing that made the service so memorable was not the decorations, the stained glass, the organ playing or the traditional singing of “Silent Night” while holding a lighted candle. It was the participation of children.
Little Henry, who was just shy of his third birthday, had been fidgeting all evening and jostling with his older brother and sister. Yet, when directed by the pastor, he searched diligently for the baby Jesus. It wasn’t long before Henry came back jumping and shouting, “I found Jesus! I found Jesus!” The congregation laughed at his exuberance. Some reflected on the wisdom coming from the mouth of this babe. Many remembered the delight of their own experience of “finding Jesus”—especially with a new found relationship with God, the joy of sins forgiven.
Christmas is a time we celebrate the gift of God’s own son, Jesus Christ, who came to make us holy and give us life, abundant and eternal. Some have remarkable testimonies of God’s transforming power. Puerto Rican gang leader Nicky Cruz, in his 1968 book, “Run Baby Run,” famously recalled his change from being a thug, leading The Mau-Maus on the streets of New York City, to becoming a preacher. Similarly, President George W. Bush recounts renouncing alcohol after experiencing a spiritual conversion he attributes to the faith and influence of his wife Laura and the gospel messages he heard preached at their United Methodist Church. Nicky Cruz and George W. Bush each experienced an “I found Jesus” moment that transformed their lives.
Each of us who attended the candlelight service felt the warmth of the season and experienced the joy of watching children grow in faith. The next day, on Christmas morning, we woke to the beautiful sight of a gentle dusting of snow covering the ground and hanging from branches. The fallen snow had covered the dirt and transformed the landscape, just as God’s grace changes lives and makes us holy.
STEVE CARPENTER is a development director and freelance writer from Harrisonburg, Va.