One of my favorite moments at my parish is the hush right before Christmas Eve services begin. 

The lights are lowered just a bit as everyone settles in, and eventually the rustling stops and a pregnant pause falls over the congregation. Then, as if out of nowhere, a small voice pipes up at the rear of the church. Her voice unaccompanied in an a cappella solo, a young girl from our congregation carries a doll to the manger, which has taken its place at the base of the altar. As she walks, she sings confidently: 

“Away in a manger, no crib for his bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head .…” 

When she reaches the front and places the doll in the manger, the congregation stands and the choir processes, and though the lights remain lowered, we all join in her song: 

“The cattle are lowing .…” 

For me, it’s the perfect way to begin the night, with a child leading the way. That is, after all, the essential story of Christmas—that story of God-made-flesh unexpectedly coming on the scene in a no-name town to no-name people. 

And though Raleigh, N.C., isn’t exactly a no-name town, in many ways we are the very same no-name people who first received the news, bearing Christ for the world in our own various, small ways. 

And it’s still just as exciting. 

One year, as I stood with one of our youth at the back of church while she was preparing to make the journey down that aisle, she nervously toed the floor. I imagined the many ways in which she was very much embodying the spirit of the night: anticipation and expectation, and not without a good dose of fear.   

Only a child can really embody all of that fully for us adults this time of year.   

My own childhood memories around Christmas are full of those same feelings. The midnight service at church was always my favorite. After the carols and after communion and after the candles, I knew it would be Christmas Day. 

One year, as I stood with one of our youth at the back of church while she was preparing to make the journey down that aisle, she nervously toed the floor. I imagined the many ways in which she was very much embodying the spirit of the night: anticipation and expectation, and not without a good dose of fear.   

And that, somehow, changed everything. 

When I wasn’t a perpetual acolyte, I was a perpetual chorister. And when I wasn’t in the choir, I was wanting to help the ushers and pass out candles. At Christmas, my childhood-self wanted, needed, to be part of the story. I didn’t want to be Joseph in the cute nativity play, or even that silly cow I was that one year (udders and all). That was fine and cute, but I knew it wasn’t the point. 

We were doing more on Christmas Eve than biding time for presents and being cute in pageants. 

Somehow I knew that the decorations, the greenery, the scented candles, the odd tree that we pretended was growing in our living room, and even those carefully wrapped presents that seemed to grow slowly, almost organically, over the long month of December were all actually pointing to that Christmas Day on which everything would change. 

And my adult-self seems to need reminding, every single year, that Christmas Day does change things. Every single year.   

Hopeful expectation

So my adult-self needs that child to walk that baby down the aisle on Christmas Eve to embody what I seem to have such a hard time embodying most days: hopeful expectation. 

Even the noise of Christmas Eve lends itself to that feeling. For as much as I love the hushed quiet at the beginning of services, I know that by the end of the hour, with the lights back on after “Silent Night,” the noise of restless-but-sleepy children will turn the serenity of the church service into a bowling alley. And that’s all part of the experience, too, because hopeful expectation eventually bursts forth into joy. 

Earlier this year, I worshiped with my family at a church that doesn’t have any children regularly in worship. My children fidgeted and squirmed, they spoke too loudly during the prayers, and one even had to be hauled out because the preacher (me) kept going on and on about Jesus. 

A month later I received a message that the people there still talk about that Sunday. Not because of the sermon, but because of my children. As one elderly woman said, “It was so good to have a child running up and down the aisle again.” So good—even if he had to be taken out because he was being fussy. 

I’m trying to keep all of this in my heart on Christmas Eve because I don’t want to miss witnessing the opportunity to have a child go down the aisle again, reminding us that at Christmas, we’re pulling out all the stops to point to that Christ child who is running around the halls of the cosmos, causing a bit of a fuss as God shows up on the scene again, encouraging our hopeful expectation and leading us into great joy. 

I looked at that young girl next to me in the back of the church as the lights began to dim. She looked up at me and asked, “Now?” 

Yes, child. Now is the time. Lead us.

Tim Brown
Tim Brown is a pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Raleigh, N.C., and a frequent contributor to Living Lutheran. He blogs at Reluctant Xtian.

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