The setting was perfection. Large gothic sanctuary, slate floor, wooden pews with iron candle holders, a hundred soft flames gently illuminating the space. Christmas Eve and Maundy Thursday were the only services conducted by candlelight. The stunning chancel window glowed, Jesus with angels surrounding him, the Ascension. Hundreds of organ pipes framed the rose window in the back. Timpani, brass, and the choir looked out high above the congregation.
I used to wait the entire year for it. The most beautiful service. The most thrilling music.
Even after it was decided that as a lesbian I was not worthy of Jesus, of my church— even after I stopped attending weekly services— I still stubbornly showed up late at night on Christmas Eve.
If I popped into the choir room before they went up to the sanctuary I’d be urged to put on a robe and get a music folder. They knew me in the choir. They knew my heart and my voice. Because I’d grown up in that choir room, in that church, and those people wearing the red robes were the inhabitants of the village that raised me. And for this night only, I would become one of them again.
They were not the ones who deemed me unworthy. That decision was handed down by a very few, the men who sat in front, wore the black robes, and loved the sound of words.
After a few years had passed I would wait and climb the stairs to the choir loft just minutes before the music began, after the singers had been seated. Find an empty spot. Return the smiles of my mom and dad and their friends. I wouldn’t stand with the choir for the anthems, but I’d sing along anyway. I didn’t need a robe or a folder.
Then it started getting harder to go. As time passed, church stopped feeling like my home, stopped feeling like my intimate sacred place. It started feeling like my presence was an unwelcome intrusion in someone else’s celebration. The reality of how “Christians” felt about people like me was growing into a crushing weight in my chest.
The last year I went I didn’t go upstairs to the choir loft. I slipped in and sat in the congregation. Didn’t even tell my parents I was coming or let them know I was there. I sat, mouthing the words to the anthems. One half-drunk dyke, in jeans and a sweatshirt, smelling like pot smoke and cigarettes, marooned among hundreds of scrubbed and scented families wearing special Christmas clothes.
For an hour and a half I struggled mightily to hold back tears, pretending not to see everything I had thought my life would be—my dreams, my passions, my vision for serving God—bleeding out onto the slate floor. As the choir sang, and the ministers spoke, and the candles flickered, for the first time I saw Mary in all of it. A young woman in need of a safe place. A young woman denied entrance. A young woman giving birth to the Human One anyway, in an inauspicious tangle of blood, fear, and pain.
I didn’t go back after that.
For a few of the following years, I tuned in to the local TV broadcast of the service from my church. And I made a point to watch it every time, still half-drunk and high, but now gratefully satisfied with the spiritual numbness suffusing my body. Now it was just a TV show, no longer an experiential reminder of my unworthiness.
After a while the television station started broadcasting a different service at a different church, and I found other things to think about and do on Christmas Eve.
But this year I find myself thinking about it again.
Not because I think it would be the same. Not because I need to hear the stories, not because I feel a need for that kind of community, not because I think I can ever have that same thing again.
I’m thinking about it because it’s where I first noticed Mary. And I need her now.
I need to sit with her as the music fills all the space between the stone walls and my soul. I need to feel her abandon, her determination, her willingness, as well as her human weakness. I need to feel her gently take my hand, and ask if I will stay, if I will sit with her after the last note of the postlude has faded, after the people have gotten in their cars and driven away, after the candles have been snuffed, and the sanctuary becomes again, as it so often is, empty and dark.
Because there, in that place, at that time, I would dare to speak my secrets, quietly, haltingly, and she would speak hers to me.
I’d tell her how I’m confused by this incarnation. How I skirt around the edges of surrender because I’m scared and hurt so much of the time. How I don’t understand a way to abide the pervasive violence and anger crashing around me. I’d tell her how ashamed I am that I can’t figure out how to forgive all the people who deny me a place to rest, who send me away alone. I’d tell her about my desperate need to have my pain be known, be seen, be felt. I’d tell her how I want those who have hurt me to know the weight of the burdens they have laid upon me, before I put those burdens down. I’d admit to her everything about me that I know isn’t right, isn’t attractive, isn’t helpful, isn’t loving, but is authentically who I am.
And she would listen, and nod, and release my hand so I could wipe my eyes, but then gently take it back into hers again.
And after I had finished speaking, in the darkened sanctuary on Christmas Eve, she would softly speak to me, telling me how she learned to set everything aside. Her life, her pride, her family, her plans, and most of all, her fear. She would pray over me, asking her child, Christ/Sophia, to help me do the same. And then, right before I stood up to return to my life, she would stop me, just to make sure I understood the most important part, the part everyone has missed all these years.
In finding the courage to become who God created her to be, she proved that we are all worthy of giving birth to the Human One, each of us. And that, Mary would say, must always be accomplished in an inauspicious tangle of blood, fear, and pain.