It was Second Saturday in Sacramento and the Occasional Choir was singing accompanied by a grand pipe organ, the large gray metal pipes bellowing air in beautiful melodies and harmonies. Beneath the vaulted ceilings, white and high with artful stencils adorning the edges of the beams, I sat in a pew on a red cushion. The choir struggled to compete with the booming magnificence of the organ’s tones so it seemed that the choir accompanied the organ rather than the other way around.
About twenty people, perhaps thirty, were scattered throughout the quadruple rows of pews facing the altar, an ornate dark wooden monument to God, carved carefully and draped with gilt thread finely embroidered into the blue cloth.
It was a uniquely American scene, old, young, very young and everything in between gathered to hear the traditional music of Christmas performed in traditional fashion. A forty foot tall Christmas tree, scraggly and poorly shaped to one side of the nave stood decorated only with white lights on every branch drawing the children close with the promise of Christmas. Some tiny hands reach up to gently touch each bulb along the boughs, drawn to the light as God hopes we are drawn to Him. A wooden pulpit stood cold and authoritative on the opposite side of the nave.
A pastor stood between songs to announce the next offering and to give short bits of information about the church to the crowd, strangers mostly to the church, who perhaps he would favor as part of his congregation. Jay Leno he was not, but he gave it his all.
In an interestingly political moment, the pastor showed deference to one elderly woman in the crowd when during an interlude he described the recent, extensive renovation of the sanctuary and how the stencils now freshly repainted were copies of original designs. The original designs had been painted over long ago, but were now restored. He asked the woman if the designs were original and she assured him with confidence that they were. She showed obvious appreciation of being acknowledged as an authority before the crowd that they were indeed original designs. She nodded her approval with a cold dignity that no doubt made all children in the room draw closer to their mothers.
I took notice of this woman earlier when she entered with another older woman. She seated herself near the front and at the edge of the center aisle of the church, where she was sure to be noticed by the pastor. She had the stern, humorless appearance of an aged school marm, or a Sunday school teacher who’d dealt with one too many unruly children. Her face was botox steel, her long, finely combed gray hair poured straight down ending with iron clad curls around her shoulders. I took special note of her cruel shoes that clicked smartly along the aisle when she entered. These shoes were black leather with blocked toes that I decided were once pointy but which had become squared off from kicking the pastor in the ass on a regular basis. She rather looked like the woman who took Toto from Dorothy and I searched the exit for her bicycle when I left.
The Pastor was a 40-something. The poor man doing his best to host the event but was looking too much like someone performing in front of his worst critic. I wasn’t sure if that was God or the school marm. He at one point assured the crowd that it was a good thing for there to be children in the church, that this was how they learned to be in church, “by being in Church”. The constant roaming, climbing, Christmas tree pinching, squealing chasing, group of under-fives with their mothers chasing close behind made him nervous, that was clear. God needed control in His house and I imagined that the Pastor felt that others had assigned him the duty of keeping order. So he felt the need to say that the disorder was a good thing, although he didn’t sound very confident about it.
A particularly touching scene was a man in his fifties who came in with a woman I took to be his wife and a man I took to be his father in a wheelchair looking frail and distant. I smiled at the man as he was wheeled past me and he returned my look, but not my smile. I noticed that the son had pulled his father’s wheelchair close to him and that the old man had placed his hand on his son’s thigh. The son stroked his father’s hand lovingly. During the music, the old man broke down in tears and I saw his shoulders shuddering with emotion as the children played near the Christmas tree nearby him. Such a contrast of meaning.
I sat lost in the diversity of the crowd, lost in thoughts of Christmas past, lost in thoughts about God, about love and grace, the promise of Christmas.