Friday, December 25, 2009

The Children's Christmas Service at Leeds Episcopal Church

Early last evening, I attended the ‘children’s’ Christmas service at Leeds Church, the parish in rural Northwestern Virginia near where we live. As is typical on religious holidays - especially Christmas and Easter - the small church was filled to overflowing. Late arrivals, which included my wife and me, were directed to the balcony. This was where a small number of slaves who had been permitted to attend services sat before emancipation. Afterwards, I should imagine, though I don’t know for sure, freed slaves who chose to attend Anglican services continued to sit in the balcony seats, by choice and custom. Today, there is only one African American member of the Congregation who regularly attends services - most in the community attend Mount Olivet Baptist Church, nearby. He sings in the choir, but if he did not, could sit wherever he wanted, of course.

Our priest at Leeds Church is especially welcoming to children. The tradition at this service is for all young children to come up to the alter rail and tell the nativity story by responding to our priest’s questions. She explained that Jesus was born in a manger because God wanted to demonstrate that his message was for poor people, not only the rich. Income levels in the Leeds congregation and the surrounding community vary widely. Poverty is more than abstraction. As the Nativity story unfolds, children are invited to place miniature replicas of Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the three wise men and a number of different animals in the small creche near the altar. In contrast to urban congregations, cows, sheep, horses and goats are not beings these children know only from pictures or television. Most see them every day or so on their own or neighboring farms.

I particularly like the children’s service message because it is so refreshingly free of doctrinal overtones. Jesus was sent by God to provide an example, through his own life of how human beings should treat one another and to offer the hope of salvation and eternal life to all. This is a message easily grasped by even young children. They can personally identify with the child figure that one of them has placed in the manger. Do any of us, irrespective of our religious persuasion, really need more than that?

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