Ever since he was a boy, the one thing Mr. Perkins looked forward to most about the Advent and Christmas season was the annual service of Lesson and Carols. Perhaps it was the fact that he had grown up in a large city church – a church with a long tradition of excellence in music and ceremony – that shaped his love for this annual event. In his quiet moments of nostalgia he would retreat into his early memories, like a trip through a well-known and oft-visited museum, and revisit the Lessons and Carols service of his youth. In his imagination, he would hear once again the haunting tone of the boy treble coming from the church entrance, echoing through the darkened silence the opening words of “Once in Royal David’s City.” And as the choir processed with candles, all joining in the remaining verses, his heart was warmed by the light breaking through the darkness of night.
In his mind’s eye he would conjure up the ghost of his childhood rector, who in his best Richard Burton voice would pronounce these words: “Beloved in Christ, at this Christmas-tide let it be our care and delight to hear again the message of the angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and the Babe, lying in a manager…” And then, Mr. Perkins would dream. He would dream of the day when he might have a church with a long nave for the procession, a four-part choir that could sing a myriad of anthems and sing carols with angelic descants. He even dreamt that someday he would have in his midst a young boy whose pure treble voice would break the silence and darkness with that opening verse. And he dreamt of being that rector with the Richard Burton voice, calling a full church to worship the newborn king.
But alas, Mr. Perkins did not have a four-part choir, nor did he have a boy treble, nor did he have a full church, nor did he have the voice of Richard Burton. Mr. Perkins was not the rector of a quasi-cathedral city church, but the rector of Christ Church, Hampton’s Corners – a little church, tucked away in a little corner, almost forgotten in the vast diocese of which he was a part. While Mr. Perkins dreamt about someday being able to offer such a service, he knew his dreams were only that, and so he would escape into the memories of Lessons and Carols of youth with a mixture of sentimentality and sadness.
From time-to-time, each year, in fact, he thought that perhaps he might raise the idea of a Lessons and Carols service with his faithful organist Mr. Jack Organ, but Jack would emphatically reject the idea. “Impossible,” he would bellow. “We’re not a cathedral.” And that was that. But Mr. Jack Organ now worshipped on another shore, and his daughter-in-law, the young widow Mary Organ, was now at the console, faithfully directing the six octo- and nonagenarians that made up the choir of Christ Church. It was Mary who first broached the idea with Mr. Perkins that maybe this year they should give it a shot.
“Mr. Perkins,” she said, one Sunday in early November as they were leaving the church after the parishioners have departed, “I know you have always wanted to have a Lessons and Carols service here at Christ Church. What do you say we give it go this year?”
Mr. Perkins’ heart leapt within him. It was like all he had dreamt was about to come true. Without missing a beat, without thinking, completely caught up in the excitement that comes when what you thought could never be is offered freely and unexpectedly, he said yes. And so the plan was hatched.
If Mr. Perkins had stopped to think even for a moment, he might have thought better of it. He might have demonstrated some reservation. He might have considered the obstacles that stood in the way of executing the sort of Lessons and Carols service about which he so regularly fantasized. Perhaps amongst the readership of this little story there will be some of you who have participated in a Lessons and Carols service as choristers, or perhaps as a choir director, or even as a cleric. It is a service that takes considerable planning, considerable rehearsal, and considerable talent.
I don’t think any of these three things were on the side of the people of Hampton’s Corners. Now, I don’t mean to disparage them, but to say that they would have been up to the task might would be a disservice to the truth. They could put on a dinner like no one else. They were experts at running the annual community dance. They could decorate the church more beautifully than any church in the diocese and they were famous for their Christmas Bazaars. But Christ Church Hampton’s Corners was not the liturgical or musical centre of the diocese, and deep down, Mr. Perkins knew it.
In spite of this knowledge – willfully ignoring it, in fact – in blissful pursuit of a sentimental return to the Christmases of his childhood, Mr. Perkins barreled forward, enthusiastically preparing the service. He got his dog-eared copy of Carols for Choirs 1 down from his shelf, and blew the dust off it. He busily selected the lessons, and prepared the program. Mrs. Mary Organ put out a call for choristers, hoping to bring in a few ringers to round out the ranks, and selected some classic carols and well-known traditional anthems. Reginald Canon, the scrupulous people’s warden, was elected to conscript readers from the community and assign them the Lessons. The time-honoured tradition would be that outstanding members of the local community would read the lessons, with the rector himself concluding with the Lesson from John 1, “The Word Made Flesh.” Reg was delighted to inform Mr. Perkins that Marcus Alderman, the Reeve of Hampton’s Corners had agreed to be a reader – a wonderful coup, given that Mr. Alderman was a Presbyterian! Thus, the preparations unfolded.
The first signs of trouble came when Mr. Perkins learned that while a number of parishioners had volunteered to join the choir and fill out the ranks, Mary had been unable to procure any “ringers.” On a couple of occasions, he had poked his head in the church and listened to a bit of the rehearsal. He winced once or twice at the sour notes he heard and the dissonances amongst the voices, and then quietly closed the door and told himself, “well, there are still three weeks…”
At last the sacred night came – December 24th, Christmas Eve. The church was beautifully appointed and adorned. There were poinsettias, and holly, and Christmas lights, and a magnificent tree topped with a star. The lights were dimmed, the church was packed (thanks to a thoroughly effective advertising campaign led by Reg Canon), and silence fell over the congregation as the organ sounded a single note so that the solo verse of “Once in Royal David’s City” could begin. There was no boy treble, rather Miss Lillian Littlestature, the aged diminutive spinster, who had joined the choir for this occasion, having told Mary Organ that she had once sung this same part seven decades ago in this very church. As silence fell, after the note had sounded, Lillian, with the sort of vibrato that can only be attained with age and decades of underused vocal chords, began, “Once in Royal David’s City, stood a lowly cattle shed…”
A tear came to Mr. Perkins’ eye, but not the sort of tear that comes from nostalgic reminiscences of Christmases of yore, but rather the sort of tear that comes from the sound of fingers crossing a chalk-board. The first verse of this hymn seemed much longer than he remembered, and he was serenely comforted when the whole congregation joined in on verse two and the choir began to process.
The procession having reached the front of the church after the short trip up the nave and the hymn concluded, Mr. Perkins took his place and began to read the bidding prayer, mustering up his own best Richard Burton voice:
“Beloved in Christ, at this Christmas-tide let it be our care and delight to hear again the message of the angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and the Babe, lying in a manager…”
However, in the middle of the prayer, in which he was admonishing the congregation to remember the poor and the helpless, the cold and the hungry, seven-year old Tommy Tornado set his older sister’s hair on fire with his vigil candle. Fortunately, Reg Canon, who had been skeptical about the use of open flame in the church was at the ready with a bucket of water, and doused the flame, and young Suzy, saving the day. The shrieking subsided and as the whole row of the Tornado family noisily departed the church, the service continued. Several individuals quietly snuffed out their own candles, just to be on the safe side.
The readings began, telling of humanity’s first disobedience in the garden, God’s promises to Abraham, Christ’s birth foretold by Isaiah, all punctuated by familiar congregational carols. Then came the first anthem, “The Angel Gabriel” the old basque carol, with music by Sabine Baring-Gould. Mr. Perkins had owned that this might have been a bit ambitious for the little choir, but he trusted that Mrs. Organ would have told him if the choir could not have pulled it off. Perhaps she was just as overly optimistic as he was. We will leave it by saying that it was a rendition for the ages – ages past, and best forgotten.
On the bright side, the readers chosen from the community were all quite good, and read competently. When the sixth lesson came, the Reeve, Mr. Marcus Alderman approached the lectern, and then a feeling of horror overtook Mr. Perkins, for he had chosen the alternative sixth lesson, which might not have been the most appropriate to be read by an elected official, Mr. Alderman boomed: “And so it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” The congregation erupted in laughter that their Reeve should be chosen to read the “taxation” passage. Reg Canon, who had chosen the readers, sat with a self-satisfied look on his face at his cleverness. Mr. Perkins hung his head in shame. This was certainly not going as planned.
There were no further disasters of the evening. The second anthem was a bit better than the first, but not by much. Aside from that, the evening continued with some lusty congregational belting of favourite carols, and at last Mr. Perkins took to the lectern one final time to read the Ninth Lesson: St. John Unfolds the mystery of the Incarnation.
“In the beginning,” he began once again calling up his Richard Burton voice, attempting to restore a sense of decorum and gravitas to the evening’s proceedings, but then paused, and simply continued in his own, gentle “Mr. Perkins voice,”
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe…
Mr. Perkins continued,
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (Mr. Perkins emphasized the “us”) and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
A hush fell over church as he read, and at that very moment the mystery of the word made flesh came to Mr. Perkins, and dare I say to his little church, in a way it never had before. It was not into a perfect world that Christ came, but a flawed world, a world marred by sin, by pride, by vanity, filled with broken people, imperfect people, silly people, sad people. Christ came into a world that did not sing in perfect harmony, to people who did not speak like Richard Burton, to people who accidentally (or even intentionally) lit fires, to the mistaken and mischievous alike. For each and every one of these, the Word was made flesh, and manifested forth his glory.
Following the service, in very Anglican fashion, the congregation met in the hall over sherry. Across the room, Mr. Perkins caught the glance Mrs. Mary Organ. She approached him with a silly smile full of all the evening’s tragedy (or was it comedy?), and raising a glass asked him, asked, “Well Mr. Perkins, was that everything you dreamed of?”
Touching his glass to hers, he responded, “Not exactly Mrs. Organ, it was oh so much more. Merry Christmas, and thank you.”
“A very Merry Christmas to you, Mr. Perkins.”