‘Twas the night before Christmas … oh, wait, it’s a little early for that, isn’t it? After all, we still have Advent 4 to prepare for the main event next week which is Christmas.
I’m a huge fan of Christmas. I love the season, but I just don’t show it in the exuberant, deck-the-halls, ho-ho-ho kind of way as I used to. I still love the lights and the carols and most the trappings of Christmas, but, now that I’m a lot older, it seems that my exuberance has given way to patient waiting, and peaceful enjoyment.
I remember the years where I lived right across the street from the church of my childhood. Their traditions were different than the traditions I enjoy as an Episcopalian, but still, one thing I always loved was to walk out my front door, through the gate in our white picket fence, move down the street to see the candles burning in the windows of the church. We never really turned the lights on full inside the church for this service, except on the choir and the pulpit, so the rest of the church was basically in semi-darkness. We sang Christmas carols; we prayed, we listened to a sermon, and then still in semi-darkness walked out the church door to return home. For me, it was a very short walk, but somehow there was something about the walk back that was different than any other walk home from church at night. I didn’t have the words for it then, but I felt it, that difference.
I’ve since learned that that particular feeling corresponded very nicely with the definition of what people call thin places or spaces. It means a place, time, or both that is invisible but can be felt in an almost tangible way. It’s a feeling that there’s only a step or two between heaven and earth, and any second you could take that step through what some call the veil of heaven. It wasn’t like anticipating death, but rather an illumination or a joining.
Christmas Eve wasn’t the only time I experienced thin places or times. Quite often in my later years, I have experienced it in certain areas like the National Cathedral, or walking through some of the cemeteries, and on the Eve of All Saints, as well as times on All Souls Day when I unexpectedly encounter this thinness as an immediate, intimate presence of God. Christmas Eve, though, was something similar, just more intense.
When we moved to Arizona, we bought a house that was a similar distance to the walk I used to take as a child. Luckily I was old enough to stay out and walk to the midnight service, unlike the 7 pm Candlelight service of my childhood. We didn’t have candles in the windows, but we did have a semi-dark nave with lights for the choir the pulpit and the altar. It was almost as if I could feel the gathering of angels and holy souls around me.
I loved it when the high service for Christmas Eve began about 11 or 11:30 at night. The streets were quiet, most of the Christmas lights that people had put up had been turned off for the evening, and traffic was sparse. Coming out just after the Eucharist, my thin space would be waiting for me. I would look up in the sky and see some of the stars, not as many as if I were out in a dark field, but certainly, more than I usually saw when stepping outside after dark. The crisp air added another dimension, sharpening my senses and urging my feet to walk faster while my heart begged to go slowly to savor every possible second.
The whole thing was the feeling of God being right there, right next to me or in front of me or behind me perhaps. Maybe God was all around me, but the veil between heaven and earth was so thin that it would almost send chills down my spine. It was the holiest night of the year, the night of the Nativity, and here I was, walking through the darkness, on my way home. Still, I felt I carried within me a light that felt like gossamer and yet a steady flame that would only be extinguished when the night was over.
Every Christmas Eve, whether I’m in church or not, I look for that thin space. Sometimes I can walk outside my house and look up at the sky and see stars that remind me of the ones that I saw on my midnight walks to church. It is different to drive home at that time of night, and most churches have now begun to hold their services much earlier in the evening. It’s not quite the same, even though it celebrates the same holy event.
This year I will look for the thin space. I will listen to a recording of King’s College doing their lessons and carols. I will sit with just the lights on the tree lit, and join in with that experience listening to the readings and the glorious music that they present. I’ll look for that thin space because it represents a precursor of heaven to me. Like something I need from time to time, but which always or almost always shows up unexpectedly.
During this upcoming Christmas season, think about finding a thin space somewhere in your life whether it’s in church, walking around the neighborhood to see the lights, or even in your own home sitting quietly and opening up to God. Find the thin space. It will be an experience you won’t soon forget.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is also owned by three cats.