A MONTANA CHRISTMAS EVE SERVICE

©REV. LOIS E. VAN LEER

 

Opening Words

In this night

The stars left their habitual places

And kindled wildfire tidings

That spread faster than sound

In this night

The shepherds left their posts

To shout the new slogans in each other’s clogged ears

In this night

The foxes

Left their warm burrows

And the lion spoke of peace

As it lay beside the lamb

In this night

Roses fooled the earth

And began to bloom in the snow.

- adapted from a piece by Dorothee Solle

 

 

Chalice Lighting

“For unto us a child is born,

to us a child is given…

And his name shall be called

Wonderful Counselor

Might God

Everlasting Father

Prince of Peace.”

 

“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world shall be enrolled…And Joseph went up from Galilee to the City of David which is also called Bethlehem, to be enrolled with his betrothed, Mary, who was with child. And she gave birth to her first born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger for there was no place for them at the inn.

And in that region there shepherds out in the fields keeping watch over their flock by night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them : Be not afraid for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all the people. This will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying “Glory to God in the highest and on earth, goodwill toward all.”

 

Song: # 244 It Came Upon A Midnight Clear

 

Story:  Bison

The great bison had spent the day moving with the herd. As evening was settling in, he was ready for some alone time. So he moved away from the herd and wandered without any destination. It began to snow. Soon his brown coat was mounded with snow. He had to blink his eyes often. Every once and a while he would stop to shake his coat to dislodge the snow. He had to move more and more slowly because the snow was piling up higher and higher. Ahead he made out a stand of pines and made his way over to them. He leaned into one of the sturdy trees and rubbed his back all along it in ecstasy.

He must have dozed off for he was startled by a cry that was unlike any thing he had ever heard from the herd. Stumbling toward him in the trees were two small figures. Bison recognized them as human. One of them appeared to have a young one with them. He saw that they were shivering and that the young one was making the cry. Bison knew that cry: it was a cry of distress. He moved toward them. Startled, they moved further back into the trees. Bison snorted and puffed letting great streams of steam flow from his snout. It was the universal bison signal that meant, “follow.” So he stepped out of the cover of the trees and began to move. He turned his head to look over his shoulder to make sure the humans were following him. He heard the distress cries grow louder. The humans had not moved. Once more Bison snorted and puffed letting great streams of steam flow from his snout. And waited. This time, the humans tentatively moved out through the trees. Again the Bison snorted and puffed letting great streams of steam flow from his snout. Then he turned and began to walk.

The snow was so deep and the drifts so high that Bison had to drop his head and swing it side to side to clear the way. He was remembering an abandoned shelter. He would clear the path for the humans so that they could reach the building. All his energy had to go into swinging his great head side to side so he did not look behind him. But he knew they were following because he could hear the cry of distress. Whenever the cry became distant, he would stop and rest, waiting for it to draw closer. Then he would begin swinging his great head side to side, breaking the trail.

The snow was falling so hard, you couldn’t see in front of you, behind you, to the side of you or above you. Every once in a while, Bison would lift his head, snort and puff and let the great streams of steam flow from his snout. He made his way with his instinct. The distress cries had stopped. Bison knew that meant that the young one was too tired to protest any more. He knew he had to get the humans to the building. He waited for the humans. When they nearly ran into him, he wagged his tail as hard as he could trying to get one of them to grasp it so they could hold on. Finally he felt something claw like and cold grab his tail. He began the rhythmic swinging of his great head.

His head bumped into the door of the building. He stopped and turned and the humans moved from behind him to the side of him. When they realized that they were in front of the door, they dropped the tail and pulled with what remaining strength they had, opened the door, disappeared inside, and shut it. Bison did not realize how bone weary he was. He stood huffing to regain his breath. Then he slid down first on his front and then on his back legs to the ground. Just before he faded into a weary sleep he thought he heard a young sized snort and puff. He could have sworn he saw steam rising up from under the door of the building. But then he was lost to that weary sleep.

 

Owl, Coyote, Shepherds, and Sheep

Owl had been having a rather nice early evening nap. She was rudely awakened by a great snorting and puffing. She shook her wings, turned her head this way and that, all the while searching with her great yellow eyes for the being that had made such a noise. A bison. She should have known. She was late! She needed to go wake up Coyote who needed to go wake up the shepherds who needed to go wake up the townspeople to tell them that something was happening.

Owl flew out of the trees and made her way to where she had seen the Coyotes bed down earlier in the evening. But it was snowing hard and Owl could not see any figures beneath her. So she made her way into a pine tree and sat. Then she called as loud as she could: “Hoo, Hoo, Hoo, Hoo.” Nothing. She called again: “Hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo.” Beneath her she saw the tip of a tail poke out through the snow. The tip was followed by a length of tail that was followed by a set of haunches that was followed by a pair of legs that was followed by a back that was attached to a neck that was shaking a head. A Coyote emerged and stretched his head up, opened his jaws wide and let out quite a yawn. Impatiently, Owl called again: “Hoo, Hoo, Hoo, Hoo, Hoo.” Suddenly the black tip of a wiggling nose appeared and then a snout and then a pair of eyes and then a pair of ears and then a body and then some legs. This pattern of tip of the tail to tip of the nose was repeated several times as more Coyotes emerged from the snow with a great show of teeth and yawns. They yipped to Owl to let her know that they were awake and ready. Then they took off leaping through the snow to go find the shepherds.

They howled and yipped all over the hillsides. Finally they reached the place where the shepherds had made camp. The coyotes sat above the camp, cleared their throats, closed their eyes, threw their heads back and let loose. The shepherds woke and moved so quickly in response to the coyote songs that they tripped over the sheep. Embarrassed and feeling quite sheepish, they roused themselves to full awakeness, gathered the flock back together who were quite put out with them, and headed down toward the town. The coyotes, having done their job, curled themselves up once again, stuck their noses deep into their fur and let the snow cover them as they fell back to sleep.

The shepherds and the sheep walked the paths of the town. The shepherds knocked on the doors of the townspeople and the sheep baaed. The people knew it was time. Each year, awakened by the shepherds and their sheep who had been awakened by the coyotes who had been awakened by the Owl who had been awakened by the Bison, made their way at midnight to the abandoned stable on the other side of the town.

The people never ceased to be amazed by what awaited them there year after year. There was always a bison fast asleep right by the stable door. When they pulled the door to the stable open, it was filled with hay bales for sitting on. There was a manger filled with hay. There was also a soft lining of moss, the stuffing of milk pods and the blow away softness of weeds. That lining bore the impression of an infant’s body. They would sometimes touch the lining and they would always find it to be warm. The sheep took the places closest to the manger and drifted off to sleep. The people would sit quietly, warmed by each other’s presence. And they would be lost to memories of a story they had been told. Sometimes a child would utter a cry. A great snorting and puffing could be heard outside as great streams of steam flowed into the stable. Soon comforted, the cry would be lost to the silence. The time and silence would be broken when first one person and then another would quietly turn to their neighbor and say “peace be with you” and “Merry Christmas.” Then the people would each in their turn make their way back to their homes and into their beds.

What they never saw were the dozen’s of pairs of watchful eyes that followed their every move. And when the last door shut in the homes and the last light was darkened, the wolf pack silently rose and made its way back over the hills and into the thick of the forest. Then and only then did they allow themselves a joyfully howled “Peace on earth and goodwill to all who live upon her.”

 

Song: # 247 O Little Town of Bethlehem

 

Story: Mouse

Mouse was sad. Every year at this time in her adult life, she had readied a nest for the young she knew were coming. She had spent days year after year, running about the fall fields, picking up the forgotten stems of the grasses which she wove with her teeth and paws into a tiny sheltered nest deep in the hay in the abandoned stable. She would gather bits and pieces of moss, the stuffing of milk pods, and the blow away softness of weeds to line her nest. Then she would wait. For the lengthening of days and birth.

But Mouse was old now. She was past the years of mouse bearing. Yet instinct and habits die-hard. So even though she knew birth would not come to her, she had readied a nest and spent many hours curled there. Still waiting. But for what she did not know.

On a particularly cold and windswept night when the stable creaked and shuddered and snow drifted in through the places where the wood planks met one another, she was suddenly brought to full wakefulness. The heavy door was slowly being pulled open. The cold filled the otherwise empty stable. She felt heavy vibrations and heard a cry. She lifted her nose, wiggling her whiskers trying to identify the intruders by smell. But their scent was unfamiliar to her. Reluctantly she left the nest and scurried up one of the wood beams to the empty hayloft. There she had a view of the whole stable.

She saw an exhausted man and woman. The woman had something in her arms that was moving and crying. The man looked around then walked over to an empty manger. He gathered hay and lined the manger with it. The woman put the bundle from her arms in the manger. The man and the woman piled hay along side the manger and lay down. Soon the mouse could hear their rhythmic breathing and she knew they were asleep. She raced down from the loft, made her way through the hay, ran up the side of the manger, perched on the top of it, looked in and sniffed and wiggled her whiskers. She saw a child. Though the child no longer cried, it moved and squirmed and kicked. It was clearly uncomfortable. Mouse saw that the sharp hay was poking through the cloth the child was swaddled in.

She raced down the manger through the hay over to her nest. She gently pulled the lining from the nest, stuffed it in her teeth and raced back through the hay, up the side of the manger, then down into it. She stuffed the softness under and around the boy. For what seemed like hours she raced back and forth between the manger and her nest, pulling the lining out , repositioning it around the child until it no longer squirmed or kicked but fell into a contented sleep. Exhausted her self, Mouse sat for a long time just watching the child, wiggling her whiskers, sniffing. Mouse sized tears slipped from her eyes. She could not say why she was crying or even what she was feeling exactly. But she was no longer sad. The word “peace” came to her.

She made her way back to her nest. And fell asleep to the breathing of the man and the woman, the howl of the wind and the stillness of the child.

 

Judy: In The Bleak Midwinter

 

Story: Owl and Crew

Owl had been having a rather nice early evening nap. She was rudely awakened by a great snorting and puffing. She shook his wings, turned his head this way and that, all the while searching with his great yellow eyes for the being that had made such a noise. A bison. She should have known. But her anger faded to curiosity when she saw the humans. She was late! She needed to go wake up Coyote who needed to go wake up the shepherds who needed to go wake up the townspeople to tell them that something was happening.

Owl flew out of the trees and made her way to where she had seen the coyotes bed down earlier in the evening. But it was snowing hard and Owl could not see any figures beneath him. So she made her way into a pine tree and sat. Then she called as loud as she could: “Hoo, Hoo, Hoo, Hoo.” Nothing. She called again: “Hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo.” Beneath her she saw the tip of a tail poke out through the snow. The tip was followed by a length of tail that was followed by a set of haunches that was followed by a pair of legs that was followed by a back that was attached to a neck that was shaking a head. A Coyote emerged and stretched his head up, opened its jaws wide and let out quite a yawn. Impatiently, Owl called again: “Hoo, Hoo, Hoo, Hoo, Hoo.” Suddenly the black tip of a wiggling nose appeared and then a snout and then a pair of eyes and then a pair of ears and then a body and then some legs. This pattern of tip of the tail to tip of the nose was repeated several times as more Coyotes emerged from the snow with a great show of teeth and yawns. They yipped to Owl to let her know that they were awake and ready. Then they took off leaping through the snow to go find the shepherds.

They howled and yipped all over the hillsides. Finally they reached the place where the shepherds had made camp. The coyotes sat above the camp, cleared their throats, closed their eyes, threw their heads back and let loosed. The shepherds woke and moved so quickly in response to the coyote songs that they fell over the sheep. Embarrassed and feeling quite sheepish, they roused themselves to full awakeness, gathered the flock back together who were quite put out with them, and headed down toward the town. The coyotes, having done their job, curled themselves up once again, stuck their noses deep into their fur and let the snow cover them as they fell back to sleep.

The shepherds and the sheep walked the paths of the town. The shepherds knocked on the doors of the townspeople and the sheep baaed. It was time the people knew. It was time. Each year, awakened by the shepherds and their sheep who had been awakened by the coyotes who had been awakened by the Owl who had been awakened by the Bison, made their way at midnight to the abandoned stable on the other side of the town.

The people never ceased to be amazed by what awaited them there year after year. There was always a bison fast asleep right by the stable door. When they pulled the door to the stable open, the abandoned stable was filled with hay bales for sitting on. There was a manger filled with hay. There was also a soft lining of moss, the stuffing of milk pods and the blow away softness of weeds. That lining bore the impression of an infant’s body. They would sometimes touch the lining and they would always find it to be warm. The sheep always took the places closest to the manger and drifted off to sleep. The people would sit quietly, warmed by each other’s presence. And they would be lost to memory and stories told. Sometimes a child would utter a cry. A great snorting and puffing could be heard outside as great streams of steam flowed into the stable. Soon comforted, the cry would be lost to the silence. The time and silence would be broken when first one person and then another would quietly turn to their neighbor and say “peace be with you” and “Merry Christmas.” Then the people would each in their turn make their way back to their homes and into their beds.

What they never saw were the dozen’s of pairs of watchful eyes that followed their every move. And when the last door shut in the homes and the last light was darkened, the wolf pack silently rose and made its way back over the hills and into the thick of the forest. Then and only then did they allow themselves a joyfully howled  “ Peace on earth and goodwill to all who live upon her.”

 

Song:  #243 Jesus Our Brother

 

Candlelighting

 

“I will light these candles:

Candles of joy, despite all sadness,

Candles of hope where despair keeps watch.

Candles of courage for fears ever present,

Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,

Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens.

Candles of loving to inspire all my living,

Candles that will burn all the year long.”

-Howard Thurman

 

Song: #231 Angels We Have Heard On High

 

Benediction: Howard Thurman

“When the song of angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among the brothers and sisters,

To make music in the heart.”

 

Song: #251 Silent Night