Wednesday, December 13, 2017

We Go to Bethlehem on Foot

Living Nativity at Memorial United Methodist Church, Clovis, California
Memorial United Methodist Church, Clovis, California
Last Saturday and Sunday night, Merced, California, was the City of David. At least that’s how the guide at the Living Nativity explained Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem -- he compared the distance they traveled to the distance between Clovis to Merced.

So we managed to walk all the way to Merced, er, Bethlehem on Sunday night. (Or we walked around the church and into the sanctuary. Still, it was a journey.)

Confession time: we’ve been to this church building before. We visited a Hmong service a few months ago (it took two tries), and Mindy’s been to their thrift store several times. That’s where she heard about the church’s live nativity, and we decided it wouldn’t really count as a repeat.

A centurion greeted each group of new arrivals, announcing that Caesar Augustus had commanded everyone to go to their ancestral home for a census. (More quietly, he directed us to the table where we were to register for our tour. Everyone was assigned a letter for a “census” group, along with a number. We were in group D) As we waited for our tour, we stood by the fire, which felt quite nice. The fire doubled in the program as a couple men from the church cooked hot dogs over the blazing logs.

With our guide, we followed a sidewalk lined with luminaria to the first scene: Mary being visited by an angel, Gabriel. (The Scripture called the angel a “he,” but the angels we saw during our walk all looked female. Scripture also indicates that gender might not even be a thing with angels.) We found Mary cooking matzo bread when the angel brought the news that she would be the mother of the world’s Savior. There was then taped music of “Love was Born at Christmas”.

We next visited Joseph who seemed to have fallen asleep while snacking on the same bread Mary had been baking. After the angel’s announcement about the coming Messiah, we had live singers lead us in singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” (They said we were all welcome to join the church choir.)

Off we went to see another angelic announcement when the shepherds were given the good news of the baby in the manger. Our guide (in standard church Biblical costume/bathrobe) told us that Scripture said that a “multitude” of angels appeared to the shepherds, which could have been millions… or two. For budgetary reasons, I assume, we had two. Our guide also mentioned that the sheep these particular shepherds of Bethlehem were tending could well have been sold to the temple to be used as sacrifices for sin. The lively group of shepherds of different ages and shoe types (dress to tennis) reacted in a variety of ways to the angel’s announcement, and we all joined in singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” One of the shepherds seemed to be dancing her excitement about the newborn king.

Next stop was the Magi. Our guide noted that although there were three men in the scene and we sang “We Three Kings,” the Bible never says how many men came from the East, but that tradition has named three, probably came from the fact that three gifts were mentioned (gold, frankincense, and myrrh). The guide also pointed out that their wise men were obviously genuine wise men because they all had glasses.

The final stop was in the scene at the manger with Mary, Joseph and the Baby, joined by angels, shepherds, and their dog. (The dog never did make it into the manger, but it did make me think of that phrase, “dog in a manger,” which I never understood. So I looked it up when I got home. If you’re curious, follow this link.)

People were encouraged to stay as long as they wished at the nativity scene as Scripture was read and "Silent Night" was sung. It is a wonderful thing at Christmas to have time to stop and consider what it means that God Himself entered this world as a human baby.

After awhile, we left the sanctuary and went outside, where we could pick up one of those hot dogs we’d seen cooking. We brought our plates inside the fellowship hall where there were also drinks and cookies and flyers listing upcoming Christmas services. “Angels Among Us” is the church’s seasonal theme, and there was a photo op off to one side. You could get a picture of yourself with angel wings and a slogan of your choosing.

It was a nice night to hear again the Christmas story, sing carols, and eat warm snacks. The walk was nice too. We were glad we could make it to Bethlehem (if not Merced).

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

We Go to Church for Advent (and Pancakes)

Roger was wearing his Knights of Columbus apron when he stopped by our table. Someone asked if his wife was there yet, and he said he’d left her asleep at home. He said he’d pick her up in plenty of time for 11:00 am Mass. Nobody was criticizing Roger’s wife for sleeping in -- after all, the K of C pancake breakfast began at 6:00 am, and I’m sure Roger was there before that. I can’t blame her at all for staying in bed.

We didn't get there in time for 6:00 breakfast either, but we were there for 6:30 Mass; we went for breakfast after that. When we arrived at the church door as the service began, everything outside was still dark and chilly. We were trying to remember whether this was the earliest worship service we’d been to since we began this blog a little over two years ago, then remembered we went to an Easter sunrise service in Atlanta.

Still, it was an unusually early morning for us -- but not, it seemed, for many others. Though not at capacity, there was a good crowd for the service, and they weren’t just older folks. We saw a number of families with school aged and younger children and realized that this service time must be a real blessing for soccer families.

We entered the sanctuary a couple of minutes after the service began, so I believe we missed the announcements -- but not the musical prelude or opening hymn. There was no music in the service except for a line of Alleluias from the missal. (There were several other lines in the missal that had music, but we just spoke the words.) I don’t know if this service is always sans music or not. It could be they didn’t have a cantor for the morning or they might always skip music in that service to keep the running time tight. We did see someone with a guitar entering the church for the 8:00 am Spanish language Mass.

The priest leading Mass was from Africa (I’m guessing from his accent). I got to thinking about how much easier it is for the Catholic Church to move clergy to different countries and cultures. The service is the same everywhere, if one can just learn the language. (This would have been even simpler in the Latin always and everywhere days.)

His homily began with a story from the sinking of the Titanic illustrating the need for vigilance against icebergs, leading to a lesson for our need to be vigilant during Advent, looking for the Lord’s coming (and second coming). After the homily, an older couple lit the first Advent candle, with a special blessing for the beginning of this exciting season.

After the service I asked the priest whether he would be having pancakes, and he said, “No.” I wondered whether he is fasting festive things until Christmas, since Advent is a traditional season of fasting. At one point during the service, he’d mentioned that his vestments were the same as those for Lent, another season of waiting and preparation. (Aside from the Advent candles, the church won’t be decorated for Christmas until December 24th.)

We walked next door to Our Lady of Perpetual Help School, where the pancake breakfast and Christmas boutique were being held. Outside the door, donations were being taken for the church’s Saint Martha’s Pantry and for Toys for Tots.

The pancake breakfast was offered on a donation basis, no required minimum payment. All the servers were quite cheery, and we sat at a table with kindly retired folks who quite obviously were a part of the church, and greeted each other happily. When Roger stopped by, he asked Richard (seated next to Mindy) about his golf game. Richard said he hadn’t golfed for some time. Roger said he’d gone golfing the day before with his son who told him (after the game), “Dad, I’m not taking you golfing anymore. You’re losing too many of my good balls.” Roger said he’d also gotten a complaint from nearby fishermen. Too many of his balls went into the river, scaring the fish.

I’m sure the money raised by the breakfast and boutique will make many people’s Christmas season more joyful. This church’s activities have already made our Advent more joyful.