Sixty years ago, in the town of Arenzville, Illinois, off in the corner of Cass County, at 7:30 on Christmas Eve the bell was rung in the steeple of the old Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Sometime in the afternoon one of the men has stoked the fat furnace in the basement. The one-room church was warm. Amber light glowing on the snow from the windows invited the whole town to come, but there were only a few of us.
It was perhaps to be the last Christmas for the church on the corner of the public park in Arenzville. For years the Presbyterians had been struggling with diminished numbers and rising costs. Now they were facing the fact that either the building itself had to be rebuilt or the Presbyterian enterprise had to be abandoned. It was a tremendous struggle that had gone on all year. At a meeting of the congregation in November the hearts of the members were spilled out. Lydia came over from her house across the street where she had lived as a member of the church and town for eighty years. Standing up in the meeting she had declared, “If you close this church, I will come here and pray on the porch by myself.” But as we listened to the bell right there in the steeple at the back of the room and felt the floor shaking, we knew the end was inevitable. The tilting bell tower made the whole church look as if it were leaning over the street.
Yet, in the middle of our grim effort to have one last Christmas, three little girls and Joey, all starched and polished, materialized on the platform. As Rena Kruse banged out a rendition of “Away in a Manger” on the tinny upright piano they sang, “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus, lay down His sweet head.”
I sat on the side of the podium, strangely detached and caught myself watching the four children in front of me, and I knew that it had happened again. The magical mystery of Christmas had transpired. The veils had parted for a moment as we sat there and watched four children remind us what Christmas was all about. For one moment, the children, the song about Jesus, the brass bell, the leaning church, the town, and the whole wonder of Christmas were an eternal unity, Christmas one more time.
[The picture accompanying this reminiscence is of the church bell, preserved by the village on the spot the church used to be.]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.