Watching for the Light: Christmas and the Chorister’s Prayer
Painted on the wall in the church’s choir room is an old prayer; I mean an old prayer. The Chorister’s Prayer dates from about 400 A.D. If you haven’t seen it there, once the building is open again, go have a look. Meanwhile, if you want to know what it says, you already do. We prayed it earlier in the service: “Grant that what we sing with our lips we may believe in our hearts, and what we believe in our hearts we may show forth in our lives . . .”
The chorister’s prayer is, of course, really the human being’s prayer. Whether we sing or not, we all know that yearning to connect our aspirations with our actions, to weave dreams with deeds, our professions of faith with our lives of faith, until the two become a seamless cloth—what we sometimes call integrity.
It’s one of life’s most profound challenges, isn’t it? The Scottish pastor’s hymn lyrics have followed me through life: “Though what I dream and what I do in my weak days are always two . . .”
I heard an artist lecture once about his craft. He said, “I have a vivid imagination for what I want to paint. A certain brilliance fills my mind’s eye; but then usually something considerably less brilliant finds its way to that canvas.” Do you know what he meant?
“God bless the continuous stuttering”—wrote Leonard Cohen in words fitting for this season—”God bless the continuous stuttering of the word being made into flesh.”
The sky of our intentions seek their correspondence in the earth of our performance. And it is quite a formidable quest, isn’t it?
In fact, I’d say the chorister’s journey from singing about God to believing in God to living for God is perhaps the longest, and most challenging journey in our lives.
Enter Christmas. Where the road along that difficult moral and spiritual journey always passes, every single year.
Something about the season, its stories and songs, invites us to believe—or maybe this is more important— invites us to believe again, as we once did; that there is something bigger than all of us silently working for good in us, among us, and even through us—inviting us, enabling us to be better today than we were yesterday, and even better tomorrow; to realize our deepest hopes, to turn our truest dreams into deeds. As I say that, that litany, what comes to mind for you? What in your life is that divided place between what we dream and what we do? What would it mean to convert that brilliant image in your mind’s eye of who you want to be, who you want to become, of how you see the world made whole onto the canvas of your own daily life, your life goals, your choices to serve and lead in repairing the world to its wholeness and shalom? Christmas may offer a hint.
Have you ever noticed how so many of the Christmas stories begin with doubt, or confusion, or fear, or disorientation?
When the angel Gabriel visits Mary, she doubts before she ever believes: How can this be? is her first reaction.
Only then does she move to trust, from “How can this be” to “let it be,” singing then of a just and compassionate world, and finally embodying that song that she sings, giving birth to a Savior whose life was to fulfill that song’s vision.
From doubt to song, to faith to life. Doubt, song, faith, life. Sounds like the paces, the words for a walk, or a breath prayer we might try, or a journaling, or maybe the paint brush: doubt, song, faith, life. Mary the chorister has her prayer answered within her own frame.
It goes on this way in other Christmas stories.
Joseph is newly engaged and confused at first by Mary’s news, but then, after sleeping on it, he wakes up clear and newly courageous.
This young couple is then displaced by circumstance as Christmas draws near—sort of like us; disrupted in their Christmas plans—kind of like us; detoured from their expected, predicted, preferred journey—a bit like us in a Covid year. And yet through it all, by some miracle, a child is born to set these things aright; to reconcile disappointment and disruption to heal and to mend, to bring down and to raise up.
The stories continue. Shepherds in a field at night get word of all this, and are frightened, but then turn brave and buoyant.
Magi, later on, cross a continent, uncertain where they’re going, facing threats and detours along their meandering way before finally bending their knee before this holy child. Reverence is a tenacious thing.
These are the stories we tell, these are the songs we sing at Advent and at Christmas. What do they have in common? They all begin the same way our own stories tend to begin—certainly true this year: in doubt; fear; confusion, uncertainty.
And then, and then, they begin to turn and shift, and doubt turns to trust, fear to bravery, confusion to courage, uncertainty to devotion. In telling those stories together in Advent and at Christmas I am coming to believe that we stand a good chance, you and I, of coming to believe; of coming to believe that our own stories could play out in similar ways; that these stories, these songs, borrowed for our own telling, our own singing can become our faith, believed in our hearts, and then begin more and more to show forth in our lives. Doubt, song, faith, life.
The chorister’s prayer answered at Christmas in the book of Scripture; and maybe also in the book of our lives.
We might call it grace by association. It happens all the time. Including maybe in our time. Yours and mine. And ours together.
It’s not that we will make ourselves better, let’s be clear, or make ourselves whole any more than we could sit in our own laps. As in every single one of these stories, so for us: something from beyond us finds its way into our being, to stir a longing, a hunger, an openness, a readiness, an eagerness. I am imagining, though I cannot know this, I am imagining it may perhaps be something like a child stirring in the womb.
“Hail, Mary,” the angel Gabriel says: “God is with you.” Which turns out to be something more like: “God is within you.”
This is what we mean by Christ being born in us at Christmas. We make a little room in what has become for us a stable doubt, or fear, or confusion—just a little space, a little wonder, a little longing, an iota of trust; and before we know what’s happened, hold our breath and let it go, that little space in us is occupied by a holy child.
I read once about a kindergartener who had been experiencing the nativity story over and over during December. First in Sunday school on a felt board, where baby Jesus was born. And then in the play at church, she was the innkeeper at a Christmas pageant, and watched as Mary and Joseph placed little baby doll Jesus in the manger. And then at home her favorite Christmas book, a Tommy de Paola book of Mary and Joseph finding their way to the manger and then the birth of baby Jesus there. Finally, her cousin’s church was having a live Christmas pageant and her family went, and there, behold, a real Mary and a real Joseph and a real baby Jesus. Tucked into bed that night asked her mother, “Mommy, how many times will Jesus be born?”
Once, of course. Once times each of you. Each of us.