A few years ago, as I played the organ for our churchs late-night Christmas Eve service, I noticed a well-dressed thirty-something woman, alone in the pew, singing, praying, reading, and listening along with the rest of the congregation. As we moved from the opening celebration of "Joy to the World" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," through the lessons and carols, into Holy Communion, and finally into the quiet and meditation of lighting candles and singing "Silent Night," I observed that she was no longer singing. As she stared at the flame of her own hand-held candle and stood in silence while the congregation spread the light and sang the carol, tears began to flow. After others had departed, she remained silent in her pew, still holding the now-extinguished candle. After I had closed up the organ, I approached her as subtly and gently as I could.
"Hello. Merry Christmas," I said softly with a smile. She gradually revealed that she was in town visiting friends for the holidays. And as she continued to dab at her tears through our conversation, I learned that she had lost both parents in a six-month period a few years earlier and that she had recently gone through a difficult divorce. She was obviously an emotionally vulnerable person, perhaps still grieving, perhaps still angry.
"You know, I was just fine tonight. My friends didnt want to come, which is okay with me. I really enjoyed the singing, the candles, the sermon, the Communion, and being with warm and wonderful people. But as I watched more and more candles being lit, and finally lit mine, and as we sang Silent Night so beautifully, I just fell apart. It made me remember Christmas Eves at home with my own family when I was a child and special times with my husband. Im not a person who breaks down and cries over such things, but it was those candles and Silent Night that did it to me. Im not sad — Im happy! And yet, Im crying and my stomach is tied in knots."
We talked for a short time longer, then I escorted her to her car and said goodbye. I wont soon forget what she said: "It was those candles and Silent Night that did it to me." She had identified something Ive known all my life, I think, and that is that at any time, music has the ability to engage people in deeply emotional and meaningful ways. It can trigger feelings and remembrances from the past, sometimes pleasant and sometimes not, sometimes welcome and sometimes not. The lighting of a candle or the singing of "Silent Night" on Christmas Eve can bring on a flood of recollections, images, feelings, emotions, and actions from the past; and that was what had happened to this young woman.
We church musicians and worship leaders exercise that kind of influence on our worshipers whenever we select, lead, or accompany their singing. And that influence is magnified many times at Christmas, when peoples emotions are already so close to the surface from the pressures and activities of the season: shopping, parties, church services, school programs, decorating, vacations, family visits. We must be aware all the time, but perhaps especially at Christmas Eve, that what we do with music may have a profound impact on people.
People want to experience the expected. They want to sing the familiar carols that are such an important part of their Christmas experience. They want to remember their past. And so let us be careful in how we sing and play these songs. Dont do strange things with the familiar rhythms, as I heard one organist do as he accompanied "We Three Kings" in a jazzy 5/4 meter, similar to Dave Brubecks "Take Five." Be careful about changing the words to the songs that people know and have cherished all their lives. Dont give in to the impulse to add all the rich harmonic elaborations and embellishments that can be added to "Silent Night," when what people want and expect is simplicity and familiarity. This may even be the only song they will ever sing in harmony, or from memory.
In his article, "Christmas Eve Hospitality: Twelve Ways to Welcome,"Dan Benedict cautions us to keep a balance between new and familiar music on Christmas Eve. I would normally champion this cause, especially throughout the year. But on Christmas Eve, I would caution for less balance, in favor of the familiar. At this time of the year, when peoples expectations are so high and their emotions so aroused, new and unfamiliar music — music that challenges people to struggle to learn and master the unknown — can actually be an intrusion and may be resented. New music should be done carefully and quite sparingly.
Let musical performance have its place, but not at the expense of encouraging and leading the people in active worship participation. Soloists, choirs, children, handbells, organists, instrumentalists — all have worked hard to prepare music for this night, and the sharing of their musical gifts can be a special part of the service. But do not let such offerings keep the people from one of the few activities that allow them to physically, verbally, and emotionally welcome and worship the new-born Savior. Dont ask the people to come on Christmas Eve to be spectators of a musical extravaganza.
I remember how at Christmas time my mother always did her work around the house. The cleaning, the decorating, cooking, rearranging of furniture, serving of the meals and snacks, singing at the organ with family and friends, telling stories and sharing our past experiences were all done with extraordinary love, care, and sensitivity to how our guests would experience these actions. As we select, plan, rehearse, and present the music of Christmas Eve, we must do so with the same kind of extraordinary love, care, and sensitivity. That is Christmas Eve hospitality at church.