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Christmas Eve Service. By Martin Green.


     Paul Lerner’s wife Sally always wanted to go to Christmas Eve service so here he was, sitting in the church attended by most of the people in their Northern California retirement community, once again a reluctant participant. Sally had often told him that her mother, whose later life was centered around her Southern church, firmly believed that she’d meet her late husband in heaven. Paul didn’t really know what Sally, who only went to church two or three times a year, believed. In him, the religious gene, for whatever reason, was missing and he and Sally rarely discussed the matter.


     Although he usually enjoyed the Christmas hymns and carols sung by the church’s choir, Paul always felt uncomfortable when the pastor gave the inevitable sermon, reminding the audience that despite all the commercialization Christmas was about the birth of Jesus. But the regular pastor, Pastor Gene, was a nice man who didn’t imply that anyone who didn’t believe in Jesus was doomed to Hell. This year Pastor Gene was ill and his place was taken by a substitute, very zealous, who made it clear that his brand of Christianity was the only true religion.


     Where, thought Paul, did this leave the millions of Hindus, Muslims and Jews, not to mention atheists and agnostics? Then there was the belief that Jesus was the son of God. There might have been a historical Jesus and the story of the manger, the shepherds and the three wise men was appealing. But Paul wondered how anyone could believe in a virgin birth and a resurrection. And then there was the inevitable question of why, if there was a God, Christian or not, the world was obviously filled with pain and suffering, with innocent children (what had they done?) dying of AIDS, other diseases and hunger. Paul knew that religious people had all kinds of convoluted arguments to explain this, free will and all the rest. But wasn’t there an obvious and simple explanation? Sure, when mankind was in its infancy people created gods to account for things they couldn’t comprehend. But now we knew that our planet was just a speck in an expanding universe billions of years old and that one day our sun would be gone and with it life on earth.


     Paul looked at his watch. How long was this stuff going to go on? He made a mental vow: this was the last Christmas Eve service he’d attend. If Sally wanted to go next year, she’d have to go by herself. He couldn’t wait to leave. The substitute pastor finally stopped talking. The head of the church choir came to the microphone and told them that candles would be handed out and that they’d then sing “Silent Night,” while filing out of the church. Ushers appeared in the aisles, the candles were passed along, then lighted. Everyone stood. The strains of “Silent Night” filled the church. Paul looked around. He had to admit that it was an impressive scene, all of those people holding their candles, singing the beautiful song.


     Maybe those early humans were right in creating their gods after all. Maybe the conception of man being alone in an uncaring universe was too much to bear. Even thinking about it, a cold chill ran through him. People needed something warm, like those candles, to get through their lives. In the church lobby, he and Sally met some neighbors and they wished each other a happy holiday season. They went out into the cold night. For once the sky was clear and they could see a few stars, or maybe they were planets. Tomorrow their family would be coming and they’d be seeing their grandchildren. Paul’s irritation dissolved. Maybe he would go to Christmas Eve service next year after all. It made Sally happy. But he hoped Pastor Gene would be in good health and give the sermon.


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