Coal in My Stocking
Coal in my stocking. I guess that describes best what it has felt like this year. The Christmas lights and decorations were wonderful, the Christmas story and carols more powerful and poignant than ever, the gifts that I received from husband and family were touching and generous. But something was missing. I felt, as a priest, that it wasn’t good enough. I had tried valiantly, but I felt like a failure.
We had pieced together an adorable Christmas pageant with photos from previous years, the story audio-recorded by two different families. We had videoed the Christmas Eve service and had prerecorded exquisite music. We had decorated the sanctuary with flowers and branches and put up the lovely Christmas trees with little white lights. It all looked beautiful on YouTube.
But there were no people. I looked out and the pews were empty. There was no opportunity to sing together, no sharing the peace of the Lord, no hugs, no breaking of the bread, no watching the faces of the parishioners and seeing the children squirming in their seats, no faithful choir that had worked for weeks and weeks on an anthem, no turning down the lights and lifting up our candles together as we sang “Silent Night.”
I remember my Harvard Divinity School professor, the Rev. Dr. Richard Valantasis, speaking so clearly about how the priest carries the prayers of the people to God and the voice of God back to the people. He spoke of how important the fluidity of these roles is–of how we have to keep open and shifting our relationship between the congregation and the Holy One. But this year, I felt stuck.
Normally, my wonderful priest associate, the Rev. Canon Claudia Wilson, takes the Sunday after Christmas for me, but this year she couldn’t. So, as I prepared for that service feeling worn out, I got the news that our sexton and his wife had just tested positive for COVID-19, and that it was likely that he had caught it from the office. We had all been pretty careful, but not careful enough. Since the rectory is directly attached to the church office, my husband and I made a fast decision that it would be safer for us to quarantine elsewhere, and that the safest place would be our house in Maine. So, we cancelled the Sunday service and drove up.
I was exhausted when we got there and spent the first couple of days sleeping. We got a Covid test, which was negative, but soon found out that our administrative assistant had also tested positive, as had his partner, and that the extended family of our sexton had all caught the virus. So we got tested again the next week and felt very blessed to have negative test results. We had escaped.
But then there was that awful feeling of having not worked hard enough. Of being in a place of great beauty, tranquility, peace and quiet, and feeling guilty about it.
After the next Sunday’s service, which I had videoed from the rustic altar that we had put together for this purpose to which was added recorded music and readings, I was surprised by the clarity of the discussion at our Zoom coffee hour. Rather than yelling at me to get back in town, the church elders were emphatic that I stay where I was and take care of myself. I understand all this intellectually, but it’s easy as a priest to get stuck in one role and forget to switch.
It was Canon Claudia who cut through everything when she said, “I understand the guilt. Believe me, I’ve been there. But quite honestly, you’ll be more useful to us if you stay where you are.”
“You’ll be more useful to us.” Those words resonated profoundly. And what I finally heard in my heart was, “You’ll be more useful to God if you stop acting like you’re God.”
So we stayed. What a blessing to take long walks with my husband on the country roads, to relax and enjoy the gift of quiet, while still preparing sermons, making phone calls, and doing the business of the church from afar.
The next day, we took a walk at sunset. It had snowed, the sky was fiery red, and everything was stunningly beautiful. When we got home, I sat down and wrote the following:
The star, the light,
In dark of night
Explodes its shimmering song.
The earth, so still,
Wakes to the thrill
Of the brilliant, gleaming throng.
The voices blend,
And “Glorias” send
From deepest low to high.
The hills resound
With flaming sound
As echoes pierce the sky.
And who are we
That we should see
This heavenly display?
Our joy and peace
Can now increase
For Love is here to stay.
The staff and their families have all recovered nicely, thanks be to God, and we have tightened our office protocols. It has felt safe to return to Yonkers.