I have told this story several times including in an article published in Nevada Magazine’s online edition.
1988 was the first time I was without family on Christmas. It was also my first white Christmas. And it was a holy Christmas. I had taken a year off from seminary to serve as a student pastor in Virginia City, Nevada, the old mining town made famous by the TV show, Bonanza.
The week leading up to Christmas had been hectic. To top it off, a zephyr blew in two days before Christmas. I watched the clouds rolled angrily across the Sierras. Soon snow flew. The gale force wind made the frigid air feel even colder. I wore heavy sweaters even inside. By late morning of Christmas Eve, there was enough snow to ski on the streets of Virginia City. Having taken care of everything for the evening service, I joined a group of friends skiing down the old railroad grade to Gold Hill.
When we got back, we stopped by the church to shovel the snow off the steps. I turned up the heat inside. Snow drifted and the high winds made travel dangerous. About an hour before the service, word came that the steep roads into town from Carson City and Reno were closed. Now, my preparedness was for naught. Our “lessons and carols” service featured a number of readers, many of whom lived off the mountain and couldn’t make it in. Howard, our organist, assured me everything would work out. St. Mary’s of the Mountain, the Catholic Church in town, had already contacted him to play for their Midnight Mass as their organist wasn’t able to make it in.
It was a great service. Despite the cold and ice, people from town flock in. We recruited readers. As the service began, the building creaked and groaned against the gale. At times, wind seeped into the building and caused the candles to flicker. Our worship service closed with candles challenging the dark as we sang “Silent Night.”
Afterwards, a group of us headed to the Mark Twain, one of the many saloons along C Street. We had good conversations while waiting for the midnight hour to head down to St Mary’s of the Mountain for Midnight Mass. We wanted to support Howard, who was playing the organ.
When I say, “we went down,” that’s just what we did as Virginia City sits on the eastern flank of Mt. Davidson and every block you travel you gain or lose significant elevation.
Sometime during the Mass, the raging storm blew itself out. When we stepped out of the church, clear skies greeted us. Crisp cold air billowed from my mouth like a locomotive. I zipped my coat tight, bid my friends a Merry Christmas and headed home, walking up the hill toward the lighted V, high on Mount Davidson. Snow squeaked under my feet due to the cold. The scent of pinion pine burning in woodstoves filled the air. A few cars were parked by one of the saloons on C Street. Otherwise, the street was deserted. When I reached B Street, where I lived, I was nearly out of breath.
I paused to survey the town. In a few houses, lights still burned. They stood as cheery refuges from the cold. But most were dark. Folks had settled in for a long winter’s nap. Then I looked up into the dark sky dotted with brilliant stars. Orion the hunter stood high overhead, followed to the southeast by his faithful dog. To the north, the Dipper was rising. Although alone, I felt a presence…
Things had worked out. Our worship serve was special and several of us were blessed with a second service at midnight. Even though my family were thousands of miles away, I was with good friends. And I felt God’s love, a love that had come into this world in a child.
The hymns and carols of the evening echoed in my head. “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” seemed appropriate I had experienced something holy and silent awe was a fitting response.
This ancient hymn has its roots in the early church and is used as the beginning of the Communion rite in the Orthodox Churches. In English, we sing the words which recall God’s mystery to Picardy, an old French folk melody. The music is haunting, as it should be when we contemplate the incarnation, God coming to us in the flesh.
This Christmas, may we spend some time in awe, pondering the mystery of what happened so long ago. And while 2020 has appeared as a storm to us, we know that after the storm passes, there are good times. As followers of Jesus, we need to have faith.
May we also be aware that that child, born in Bethlehem, will come again and claim his throne. That’s where our ultimate hope lies. Until then, we hold on to hope and dedicate ourselves to him, our true Lord and our only Savior. Amen