Last night Raymond and I – and many other people from near and far – attended the annual Christmas candlelight service at historic Hazzard’s Corners Church. That beautiful 19th-century building, just a few miles west of Queensborough, was one of the churches on the Queensborough Pastoral Charge when my father, The Rev. Wendell Sedgwick, came here as a new United Church of Canada ordinand in 1964. Sadly, it was closed in 1967, a time when many rural churches across the country were ordered shut by the United Church powers that be because of concern over dwindling numbers (and, of course, finances). But people in the Hazzard’s community have worked very hard to keep the church building in good nick, and excellent services are held there every August and every Dec. 23.
It was a simple service, as always: the traditional lessons and carols, read and sung by oil-lamp light and candelight. But so beautiful! Especially the part when all the lights were dimmed, and everyone held a candle, and we sang Silent Night. To think about all the times that lovely old carol had been sung in that sanctuary, through all the years – and there we were, doing it again, and in the process not only celebrating Christmas 2013 but honouring all those who’d stood there before us to celebrate Christmases past.
Anyway, I’ve written about the Hazzard’s services before (here and here, for example), so tonight – Christmas Eve – what I want to talk about is Christmas Eve services. Because something I saw and took a photo of last night at Hazzard’s Church reminded me so deeply of the Christmas Eve services that Dad used to organize at St. Andrew’s United Church, just up the street from the Manse.
The object in question (the photo atop this post) is a piece of birch log, a bit over a foot long, with three candle-sized holes hollowed into it to allow for three candles to be placed there. It sat on top of the old organ at Hazzard’s, where its candles burned throughout last night’s service. Such rudimentary but pretty candle-holders, made out of birch logs, are exactly what Dad crafted for Christmas Eve services at St. Andrew’s back in the middle 1960s. There was one in each of the church windows, and several in the choir loft to light the music being sung.
(And you know what? We never once burned the place down.)
I recently learned, from our friend The Rev. John Young, a professor of theology at Queen’s University and an extremely knowledgeable church historian, that the Christmas Eve services that we nowadays pretty much take as a commonplace in Protestant churches like the United Church are actually a relatively recent phenomenon. John told me that it was only after Vatican II in the early ’60s that Protestant churches warmed to the idea of a Christmas Eve service. Until then, Christmas in those churches was marked on Christmas Sunday, the Sunday before Christmas, and that was it – point final, as they say in French. But I guess with the Roman Catholics getting a little more modernized thanks to Pope John XXIII, the Protestants decided it might be time to adopt/adapt some of the great things about Roman Catholicism – like an earlier-evening variant on the traditional midnight mass on Christmas Eve.
I’d had no idea about all this until my conversation with John, and I found it most interesting. For one thing, it means it’s very possible that the Christmas Eve candlelight services of lessons (read by children) and carols that my dad organized at St. Andrew’s in the middle 1960s were the very first Christmas Eve services ever held in that old church. Do any readers know anything about that?
But mainly I am just happy on this Christmas Eve (at the Manse) to be enjoying the memory of those services in my childhood: the church packed with people, the well-rehearsed (Dad was good about that) young readers doing a splendid job, the special music that the choir (which included my sister, Melanie, and me) provided, and the magical feeling of being inside a candlelit country church as the snow fell in the darkness outside.
“The light shines in the darkness,” says a passage from John’s gospel that is often read at Christmas, “and the darkness has not overcome it.”
That is really the message of Christmas, isn’t it? Light in the darkness. Past, present and future.
A very happy Christmas to you all. From the Manse!