Welcome the stranger. Reverend Daniel Meeter affirmed that message during his homily on Christmas Eve at Old First Dutch Reformed Church in Park Slope. “If you are Christian, Jew, Muslim or anything else; no matter your beliefs or even your lack of beliefs, all are welcome here,” he told the packed church.
As a Jew, I make a point of attending that church on Christmas Eve. And when Christmas Eve happens to be the first night of Hanukah all the better.
In these dark times, these days of division and demagogeury, it is more important than ever to enter spaces that bring people of disparate beliefs together in an atmosphere of light and introspection. Sitting in the balcony of the church’s upper church hall, I felt part of this incredible community celebration.
It was an evening of lessons and carols. During the first half hour, Old First’s remarkable music director Aleeza Meir led a small orchestra in festive music by Bach and Vivaldi. The church filled, the candles were lit, the lectors took their seats. It was a time of quiet chatter and meditation.
Then all rose for a hymn: “Jesus is our childhood’s pattern: day by day like us he grew/he was little, weak and helpless; tears and smiles like us he knew; and he feeleth for our sadness, and he shareth in our gladness.”
Reverend Meeter’s homily continued on this theme of Jesus’ smallness, his vulnerability, his being like us. He even quoted the great Joan Osborne song: “What if God was one of us, just a slob like one of us, just a stranger on the bus,” Meeter intoned. “That’s it. Full stop. Jesus was a passenger on the MTA.”
Throughout the service, the lector’s rose one by one and recited passages from Genesis, Isaiah, St. Matthew, St. Luke, and St. John. And following each reading there was music. Glorious music.
It is a tradition at Old Church for one of the lector’s to be a staff member from Congregation Beth Elohim, a synagogue just a few blocks away. This year, the church welcomed the virtuosic Cantor Josh Breitzer to the lectern where he read in Hebrew and English from Genesis 22:15-18.
It was a night of great music. Michael Daves, a talented bluegrass guitarist and vocalist, led the congregation in “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and featured vocalists including Evelyn Troester-DeGraf, Merrill Grant, Jennifer Cribbs, and Jeff Cribbs gorgeously sang songs by Vivaldi, carols, and poems set to music by Aleeza Meier. The variety and the beauty of the music lifted this Christmas Eve service into the divine hemisphere.
And yes, the orchestra was beautiful.
Perhaps the most stirring moment of a night of many stirring moments came late in the service, when all the electric lights were turned off and the church was dark except for the flicker of candlelight. Cantor Breitzer sang the first verse of “Silent Night” in German.
“Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! Alees schalft, einsam wacht..”
The emotional cluster of hearing a cantor in a church singing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve. Well, you can imagine the ecstasy and the poignancy of that moment.
Soon after, the lights were back on and the orchestra and singers led the congregation in a joyous “Joy to the World” punctuated by euphoric and loud foot stamping. Even this stranger knew to stamp along.
The crowd streamed out of the church into the unseasonably warm Brooklyn night. Infused with light, the evening gave me hope that a future is possible even in these uncertain last days of 2016.