Realizing he was just in the way, Nick stood at the rear of the sanctuary, looking sadly at the empty stage. His first thought was to slip out the door and leave the situation alone. For the first time since he found himself sitting at the long wooden table at the shelter, Nick, or should I say, Santa, was now wondering what this whole evening was all about.
“Why am I here?” Nick whispered to himself. “Is this just a bad dream? How can I just wake up and get out of this mess?”
Just as Nick was about to turn around and walk out, Joy came running down the aisle. Tugging at Nick’s baggy red pants, she motioned to the pews. By this time, the sanctuary was nearly filled. Nick looked up at the clock on the side wall. Eleven fifty-seven.
Who would have ever dreamed that Santa, or should I say, Nick, would be standing in a church sanctuary at three minutes before midnight on Christmas Eve? On any other Christmas Eve over the last 1,700 years, he would be standing tall in his gift-laden sleigh. The reindeer would be pawing the ground, snorting with anticipation to hear Santa’s famous charge, “Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donner and Blitzen! To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall! Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!”
But tonight everything is different. Tonight Santa Claus sits in the back pew of a small quiet church in a small town, somewhere in the middle of the American state of Iowa.
It was a beautiful Christmas Eve. One of those picture-perfect moonlit evenings when the freshly fallen snow hangs gently from the boughs of the evergreen trees. Everyone in town, except those at the Christmas Eve candlelight service, is now tucked warmly in their beds, awaiting their annual midnight visit from ole Saint Nick.
With Joy, and now Edward, standing beside him, Nick turned his attention to the stage. Carol had turned off the sanctuary lights and the only light in the room emanated from the four Advent candles that decorated the church altar. Nick and the children quickly took a seat in the back pew, just as Pastor Bruce was stepping up to the microphone. He opened the evening’s activities by welcoming the people and then telling them a little story.
“You know, folks. Tonight we were planning on having a wonderful candlelight service with lots of music. As those of you who attend church regularly here know, we really love our church music around this place. As a matter of fact, our band had an absolutely marvelous music rehearsal tonight around eight o’clock. You should have been here. John, Dave, and Andy were cooking right along with some wonderful new arrangements of a few of your favorite Christmas carols. Dan, our bass player, was not able to be here with us this evening, and in a way so typical to God, we had a wonderful gentleman named Nick volunteer to play bass for Dan tonight. As a matter of fact, I see Nick sitting back there in the back pew with my daughter Joy, and son, Edward right now.
Welcome, Nick! Glad you are here with us tonight. Welcome to Christmas Eve in Iowa.
Carol and I met Nick tonight over at the shelter. He was helping us serve Christmas dinner to our wonderful guests. A call came in from Mary Willson. Some of you know Mary. She works down at the hospital, helping manage the cafeteria. Well, Mary was having some heating problems over at her new home, and Nick and I were blessed to go over this evening and help Mary get her fireplace going. In the process, I got to know one of the most generous souls I think I’ve ever met. Nick not only got Mary’s fireplace up and running, but he also gave my kids one of the biggest Christmas lessons they’ll ever learn in life.
You see, Christmas is all about serving others. Jesus came to serve, not to be served. Our God loves us so much, that He sent His Son to serve us, to love us, to nurture us. In the process of serving, Jesus of Nazareth, about three hundred years before St. Nicholas ever existed, set in place a model for all of us to follow. Tonight, I had the extreme pleasure of seeing what one man can do when he sets out to do one thing only: faithfully serve God and others.
Now, as I was saying . . . tonight, we had planned to open our service with a wonderful new arrangement of Silent Night, Holy Night. There’s only one problem with that plan. It got interrupted. Earlier this evening, I failed to lock our back door, and unfortunately a couple of needy people came in and apparently borrowed our music equipment. I’m assuming they will be bringing them back to us when they’re done with them, but for tonight, I guess we’ll just have to make do with the very best of instruments that God has given us . . . our human voices.
As we sing Silent Night tonight, let me remind you (motioning to Nick in the back pew) that the very first time this song was sung back on December 24, 1818, was at the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, Austria! As the story goes, the words to Stille Nacht were written by Father Josef Mohr and the melody by headmaster Franz Gruber. Apparently, the church organ was not in good working order for the Christmas Eve service, and so Father Moher asked Mr. Gruber to compose a melody with guitar accompaniment so the congregation would have a Christmas carol to sing that evening.
Well, friends, in that tradition, since our musical instruments are apparently “out of order” tonight, let’s sing Silent Night, Holy Night . . . a cappella. For those of you who don’t speak Italian or Latin, that means ‘voices only.’”
As Andy and Pastor Bruce began to sing, Carol Dodson took a single candle from the Advent candles on the church altar. Holding the candle carefully, she walked over to Pastor Bruce who lit his candle from the one Carol held. Together they walked down the church aisle, lighting the candles of those who stood nearest the center aisle. Within minutes, everyone and everything in the sanctuary was emitting a bright yellow glow. Pastor Bruce finally reached the rear pew where Joy, Edward, and Nick stood together hand in hand. Pastor Bruce smiled at Nick and lit his candle. Nick leaned over and finished the candle lighting ceremony by touching the wicks of Joy’s and Edward’s candles with the flame of his.