By Bryan Furuness
Prompt, by Helen McClory: Write about the most moving thing you have seen at festive time (can be totally fictional of course).
When it comes to Christmas Eve services, you can have your non-denominational inspire-a-thons, your Catholic pews jammed with the sweaty lapsed, your Lutheran sopranos keening like red-tail hawks on the descant in "Angels We Have Heard on High." For sheer production value, you can't beat the Episcopalians.
Trinity Episcopal, my church in Indy, is big on beauty. It's just that, for most of the year, the beauty is understated, almost austere. The building looks like it was airlifted from a village in Yorkshire. Think: stone walls, oak doors with iron hinges, dark wooden pews on stone floors, all capped by rafters painted as brightly as a calliope.
Classy. Timeless. The church goes to work in a dark suit with a red tie. Until December, when the church leaves work and changes in a Speedway bathroom to head to a drag show.
The transformation starts with a process called "greening," which involves coiling about fifteen miles of evergreen boas around every knob and pole in the sanctuary. On Christmas Eve, these garlands bristle with candles, actual flaming candles (forget virgin birth; the real sacred mystery is how the church has avoided going up in a massive sap-fire). In their vestments of heavy brocade and tall pointy hats, the priests look like they wandered off the set of Alice in Wonderland. Trumpeters trumpet triumphantly while a dude in a crushed velvet hat whips around a censer of incense like he's the white Bruce Lee.
Pageantry? We're one torch song away from being a musical.
Or maybe the service is a musical. After all, it features several showstoppers. "Adeste Fidelis" is the Anglican "Freebird." If you haven't heard "O Holy Night" sung by children twisting their hands and rocking up on the toes of their Hush Puppies, then you have not heard "O Holy Night," my friend. And then there was the service a couple of years ago when the church pulled out all the stops during "We Three Kings." At first it seemed like a standard production, an excuse to let the men of the church let loose their most profundo basso, but then, lo! What was coming up the center aisle? Three Kings! Dressed in shimmering robes made of mermaid scales and hats that looked like Jiffy Pop post-pop. One of them had a service dog. And the dog was wearing a Jiffy Pop hat, too.
People were moved, man. Episcopalians don't shout or flop around or anything so unseemly, but eyes were shining. Hands were squeezed. Glances were exchanged that could be translated as Oh, man. This is really something. I'm feeling it hard.
In my pew, I exchanged glances dutifully, but I was not feeling it hard. I mean, I liked it. I appreciated it. I cataloged it as Very Nice. But that was it.
By the time the last star of wonder, star of night faded, even the crusty verger was swiping at his eyes in annoyance. Meanwhile I was wondering if my son, the acolyte, was in place to serve communion, and speaking of bread and wine, what were we going to eat after the service?
I wasn't always this way.
When I was a boy, church was full of ecstasies. I would stare at the eternal flame and tell myself I am real, I am actual flesh that God has made, this life is not a dream until I was thoroughly weirded out. All year I looked forward to the Good Friday service that ended in total darkness with the pastor slamming shut the Bible with a sound like the end of the universe, making my whole body prickle with goosebumps. At Easter, I would sing the Hallelujah Chorus with the choir, and we would whip ourselves into such a frenzy near the end, gnashing at the words—Forever! And ever! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!—until it felt like we were all going mad.
And then it went away. I don't know when, exactly, but by the end of my teens, church didn't transport me anymore. Not just church, either. I could no longer fall into a book like it was a dream. In a movie theater, I could no longer forget that there were people around me, that I had a body, that I was separate from the screen.
"The first twenty years of life contain the whole of experience," wrote Graham Greene. "The rest is observation." I don't know if that's true for everyone, but by the time I went to that Christmas Eve service, the one with the three kings and the service dog, it seemed true for me.
Greene also said that sometimes his faith was that his faith would return. So I kept reading. I watched the screens. I warmed the pews. In my cynical moments, I wondered if I was just going through the motions for a reminder of how these things used to make me feel, the way you might keep around an old girlfriend's shirt for an occasional sad sniff.
But even if I knew that to be true, I wouldn't stop. It's better than nothing. And in some burnt pit of my mind, an eternal flame burns a vigil for the return of awe.
Back to the service in question. Time for communion. Eli must have been in the right place after all, because he ended up next to the priest, ready to hand out wafers. The two of them worked the drive-thru lane of communion—you walked up, got your body, got your blood, and you kept on walking. When I reached the head of the line, Eli handed me the Eucharist and said, "This is my body, given for you," and then he smirked because that's what happens to his face when his lips are trying to smile while he's trying to stay serious. I know this because my face does the same thing. So there we were, smirking at each other until my wife nudged me. I gave him a wink and went back to my pew.
How much time passed before I heard the crash? Could have been two minutes, could have been ten. The communion line was long and I was trying to remember if we had the ingredients for skillet cornbread, but the clang of metal on stone brought me out of that daydream. Before I could tell what was happening, my wife was pushing past me to get to the aisle. The church murmured. I stood stupidly.
I can still close my eyes and see the scene: my boy laid out on the stone floor, looking woozily up at the rafters, his face as white as his alb, wafers scattered all around. The priest, a grandmotherly black woman, is kneeling next to him, cradling his head. My wife is on the other side, her fingertips on his chest as though telling him to stay down. The man in the crushed velvet hat cranes over the scene, looking on in concern. The dog whines. The congregation falls to a hush.
And there I am, standing. Gripping the pew in front of me like I was being electrocuted and couldn't break away.
Then I did, of course. My hesitation only lasted a second or two. I made my way up the aisle and helped him to his feet. My wife and I led him to the common room to get some orange juice and cookies. Within minutes, color was back in his face. After the service, he was treated like a minor celebrity, which he handled with embarrassed smirks. In short, the kid was fine. I wasn't so sure about myself. What happened to me when I saw him on the floor? In that electric second, I felt . . . something. Or maybe it's more accurate to say I felt everything, overloading my circuits.
A couple of years later, I'm still wondering. What came over me? It's only now, as I close my eyes and picture that scene on the stone floor, that I see how much it looks like a tableau. Like art, or maybe theater. Like an accidental nativity scene. And the feeling that seized me—fear and unbearable love—seems a faint aftershock of the original.
Bryan Furuness is the author of The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson, a novel. Along with Michael Martone, he's the co-editor of Winesburg, Indiana. His stories have appeared in New Stories from the Midwest and Best American Nonrequired Reading. He lives in Indy and teaches at Butler University.