We stood all in a row. The four- and five-year old’s. December and Christmas wrapped all of our imaginations with pretty bows, holly and hanging evergreen boughs and carols. I wore a red dress with a slender, black velvety sash and a white collar, white tights and black patent leather shoes that clicked on hard floors when I walked. Heat flowing from the huge black grates in the aisles warmed everyone. Something rather magical about the stained glass windows reflecting the sun from outside set the sanctuary on fire with holy, and the congregation sat in the glow looking upon us expectantly. We all waited for fingers to touch piano keys, for Aunt Betty to direct our grand choral performance.
Away in a Manger. Just that simple song. Three verses we committed to little memories, a story about a babe in straw and cattle lowing. Thanks to an 8-track tape, I had sung that song many times.
Somewhere in the second verse, I mixed up the story. I sang a line out of place. Blood rushed to my face. I fumbled to find the right words, to catch back up to everyone else who told the story without error. The air felt different, the windows became just regular, the glow slipped out beneath the glass-paned doors.
As soon as the music stopped, several men throughout the congregation (and maybe a few bold women) offered “Amen!” as verbal applause. I ran to the back row that my family always occupied. Nestling in close to my mom, I buried my head in her lap. Tears stung my eyes. Humiliation washed over my small self. Mom bent her head next to mine. I messed up the whole song, I muttered into her wool-skirted legs. She offered some words of affirmation and grace–which I didn’t know how to receive and wished like everything I could leave immediately–and she ran her hands over my hair.
I sat in church last night, nearly 40 whole years since the bumbled manger carol, and relived the event in my mind.
Before the start of service, I needed to get the microphone off of the stand by the communion table. The cord stretched toward me with some difficulty, so I tugged gently to release the length of it. I saw it trying to come toward me as it simultaneously, and in slow motion, slid across a narrow pedestal that held a lit candle. The candle fell, and how it is in split seconds a person can imagine all manner of terrible-awful like the carpet catching fire, I do not know. I squinted my eyes in anticipation of the impending burst of flames. The glass candle holder lay by my feet on its side, flameless. No fire engulfing anything. Just one less candle illuminating the Table.
Back in my seat, I could easily see the two lit candles looking down upon the unlit one. I was a little shaky, my heartbeat hard and visible as I looked downward. Tears stung my eyes, because it took me too long to shake off a ridiculous pride worn by grown-up skin, because I was the wrong kind of small again. I heard God whisper that grace was for me, that I could learn it, that it lived there by the Eucharist with all of the other candles and the one unlit one.
Performance and appearances hold me hostage often. Knocking the candle off the wood in front of everyone just happened, could happen to anyone and quite frequently does, I’m sure. When I wore the holiday dress and I mixed the chronology of the baby Jesus who was born in a smelly barn, no one minded. No one cared in either event; most likely, no one even noticed. Just me, who somehow learned from a very early age that getting it right was most important. More important than knowing the Light of the world. More important than seeing the holy and being wrapped up inside of its swaddling clothes.