Chapter 3: An Old Familiar Voice
Tom’s eyes slowly adjust to the light. The warm air feels good on his cheeks. The red door closes behind him. He isn’t in the forest anymore.
His boots squeak against a wet rug that’s been soaked with slush and salt. There’s a place to hang coats to his left, full of winter jackets. Two wide double doors are propped open, and inside the next room is an old familiar voice. A voice he hasn’t heard in years.
Tom walks into a large sanctuary filled with people sitting shoulder to shoulder on dark wooden pews carved to look like sleighs. He spots the owls perched high in the rafters, thick wooden rafters high up in the arched ceiling. The sanctuary looks like the upside-down hull of a large ship. The light is dim and the stained glass windows are dark—it's still nighttime here. The room feels warm with the love of families and friends. Tom knows immediately this is his church. But something is eerily different.
Tom walks past Susan Coleman, who looks like Susan from decades ago; her wrinkles are fewer and her hair is big, with styled bangs. She sits next to her husband, Rog. He’s younger, too. Tom waves to them both but they keep staring forward at the man speaking. Tom tries to grab Rog, his old tennis buddy, by the bicep, but his grip slips and the only reaction Rog lets out is a little arm twitch. It’s like Tom doesn’t exist.
Tom keeps walking down the middle aisle towards the old familiar voice. It’s his pastor dressed in his black robe and silky white stole. He has a hand-whittled cross around his neck. Without breaking from his sermon, his eyes catch Tom’s, just for a second, before they skip to the next person and the next. Tom freezes. Did he just look at me?
The sermon ends and everyone stands to sing. Music fills the sanctuary. Silent night…holy night…all is calm…all is bright…. Everyone is holding a little white candle. Tom stands next to the pastor up front, watching people pass a tiny flame from wick to wick to wick, up and down the pews. The light spreads slowly from person to person. Soon the whole room is lit by glowing faces, singing the most beautiful hymn. Tom hums along and wishes he could hold the light of Christmas too.
Tom’s eyes fall on Samantha. She’s off to the right, a few pews from the front, sitting with his family. She looks beautiful. And the kids are beside her. Hanna must be 7 years old; she’s wearing a dark green velvet dress with a lace bow, and Maggie, beside her and half her size, is wearing the same green dress. Tom remembers this night. Hanna was so mad that her little sister got to wear the same dress. They both argued and cried before worship. But here, in this moment, by the gentle glow of candlelight and sweet hymn of Christmas, all is well, all is bright. Tom sees himself, younger and stronger, holding his daughter by the hand.
As the song ends, the pastor invites everyone to pray. Silence fills the sanctuary. Tom closes his eyes too. He feels the pastor, his old familiar friend, place his arm around his shoulders. And Tom begins to cry for the second time this weekend.
A cold breeze wakes Tom from a slumber. He is back in the forest at his basecamp, sleeping outside his tent next to a dim fire. His face is cold. He is confused. He doesn’t remember leaving the church, hiking home, starting a fire, and climbing into his sleeping bag; and the red door, the hymn, Samantha and his family, seem too vivid to be a dream. The pastor looked at me, he thought. How did he know I was next to him? Tom checks his watch: 5:17 a.m. He throws three more logs on the fire. As the light spreads, Tom looks up at the trees around him. He hears the ruffling of feathers, chirping and cooing and hooting. Tom gasps. Birds are all around him. Perched on all the trees as high as he can see. There must be hundreds. Black crows, owls of every kind, sparrows, cardinals, blue jays, cedar wax wings. The small, round owl from last night plops down beside him and trills loudly. All the birds echo back, honking and beeping, a choir of angels. The small owl takes off, flying high up into the sky. The great horned owl follows her, hooting loudly, and one after another all the birds follow suit, forming a line of against the dark morning sky. Geese and ducks, a red-tailed hawk, a bright yellow goldfinch, blackbirds and grackles. The birds form a trail across the sky. They’re leading me back, Tom thought with clairvoyance, to the red door.
\ Author’s Commentary
The tension in this chapter of our story is between the real and the imagined. This is the territory of mysticism. While many of us would naturally like to know if Tom was dreaming or if he was literally transported in time from the forest to his church, perhaps this is a false either/or, and should be read instead as a both/and. A similar lens could be used to view the classic Biblical Christmas story: shepherds are outside watching their flocks at night and a host of angels show up in the sky, speaking and singing about a savior who has been born, whom they can find lying in a manger. Are the shepherds dreaming? Or did they literally see angels who happened to speak Arabic? Perhaps the magical encounters reality in a mystical, both/and sort of way.
When the pain of injustice and oppression gets too weighty, love will appear, even in the smallest, infantile ways.
\\ Question for Reflection
For some Christian churches, and many people, Christmas Eve is one of the most popular nights to attend worship. Does your soul resonate with Christmas Eve worship? What of the music, hymns, candles, scripture lessons, prayers, and/or people, are especially meaningful for you? Why, or why not?