Did you ever yearn to attend an old-fashioned Christmas Eve service in a country church? Many Decembers ago, I drove from my home in metro-Boston to the town of North Conway, NH. It's tiny compared to Boston, but filled with upscale stores and eateries, not to mention Mt. Washington. After some holiday shopping, I scanned the local paper for Christmas services. Sadly, I was a week early, and the only Christmas service was in an even smaller village a few miles away. Hoping for the best, I drove the rain-soaked farm roads to the village -- really just a crossroad -- where a tired clapboard church sat on one corner. Visitors were not expected, but I dripped through the door anyway. This church had seen better days. Instead of pews, there were ancient wooden folding chairs. The wall behind the alter was decorated with contact paper I'd seen at Woolworths. Instead of chandeliers, bare bulbs hung from the ceiling on cords, and as the service began, they all snapped off with a loud click, plunging the room into blackness. I regretted coming, but then things got worse. A dozen Sunday School kids lined up in front. Each one lit a candle. So far, so good. Then one-at-a-time they read (I'm not making this up) verses from Hallmark Christmas cards! After each kid read his card, he blew out his candle. Parents, many wearing dungarees, were obviously as pleased as punch. I wanted to drop through the floor, until there was just one kid standing with a lit candle -- the last girl in line. She didn't have a Hallmark card. She had a Bible, and she read, "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal."
It was only one verse of I Corinthians, but she garbled it. Instead of "tinkling cymbal" she said "twinkling symbol." Then she blew out her candle, and as we sat in silent darkness I realized something. Until then, my Christmas had been a "tinkling cymbal" -- mindless, noisy, selfish gift buying. But Christmas isn't a tinkling cymbal, it's a twinkling symbol -- a star wise men still follow to find the infinite love of God, manifest as a babe in a manger. I asked myself, "where will I spend this Christmas, at the mall or at the manger?"
With a loud snap, the glaring overhead bulbs came on, and folks began rising from their rickety chairs. As I left, the pastor met me at the door and apologized. He said he only serves here once a month, but has a church in North Conway "where we have a real Christmas service." I told him his apology was not needed. In that worn-out old chapel, a holy angel disguised as a little girl had reminded me what Christmas really means.