I’ve been assembling a collection of some of my stories that were published in the past. That collection will appear in the coming year as Stories by Willimon (Abingdon Press). Here’s a Yuletide offering for you, an account of a service that occurred early in my ministry. Allan Warren retired this year after four decades of ministry in the Episcopal Church.
Dawn Shall Break upon Us
1972, in Clinton, South Carolina, I learned how God is among us. We were preparing for the Christmas Eve communion service over at All Saints Church, to be led by Allan Warren, the town’s eccentric Episcopal priest. (Is there any other kind?) Those of us in the so-called nonliturgical churches tend to use “liturgical” churches on occasions like Christmas Eve, when we’re in the mood for a proper celebration. Anticipating Allan’s sermon, bolstering myself with one last cup of eggnog, I was “getting into the Christmas spirit,” as they say.
Then came the news. The peace talks had stalled. Nixon had ordered massive bombing in North Vietnam. Anger and resentment surged within me. What right had Nixon to do this to our celebration? A sick, twisted, ironic way to note the birth of the Prince of Peace—not with the songs of angels unto shepherds but with screaming bombs over bamboo villages. Was a brief cease-fire too much for us peace wishers to ask?
I phoned Allan. Had he heard? Yes. What should be our response? After all, two of the town’s most influential angry young pastors ought to say something! Would he mention the bombing in his sermon tonight? “I don’t think we ought to let Nixon get away with it,” I said. “We ought to blast him for it.” Allan agreed. “A situation like this calls for a firm response—something radical, arrogant, even defiant.” I braced myself for a major antiwar protest.
“There is only one thing to be done,” he declared. “We must pull out all the stops tonight and praise God as never before.”
“Can you imagine anybody up at the Pentagon singing a Benedictus?” was Allan’s only reply.
Sometimes the eccentricity of Episcopalians is too much. And so, not understanding, I trudged through the crisp December night to the little church where the organist was already struggling valiantly with a prelude, and a congregation of thirty or so waited in silence for the eleventh hour. When the hour arrived, in burst Allan in his tippet and biretta, accompanied by two disheveled adolescent acolytes. He made a couple of flourished bows to the altar, shifted his chasuble, and then, leaning over the chancel rail, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, whispered to the congregation, as if letting us in on some secret that only he knew, “Tonight, the Lord God of Israel has come to set his people free.”
I couldn’t tell you exactly what took place during the rest of the service. Revelation had caught me off guard, and I was thrown into a kind of “minor ecstasy,” as the Quakers say. I remember a couple of great old Advent hymns sung with as much propriety as Episcopalians can sing. I remember the passing of the peace and the iron-fisted grip of an octogenarian. I remember the smell of the wine and the taste of the bread, and I remember the choking clouds of incense that emanated from the censer of an overzealous—if not malicious—acolyte.
But mostly I remember old Zechariah’s Benedictus sung lustily, offkey, and yes, “arrogantly and defiantly,” by Allan, with the rest of us faint hearts joining in as best we could:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel;
for he hath visited and redeemed his people
and hath raised up a mighty salvation for us . . .
Through the tender mercy of our God
Whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us;
To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.Luke 1:68-69, 78-79
You see, the peculiar defense of Christians in the face of the world’s darkness is often best expressed through a most relevant kind of holy irrelevance.
My “response” to the bombing horror was little better than the horror itself—my resentment, my self-righteousness, merely echoed back in the face of a violent world. The Pentagon generals and I did share something after all: brothers in darkness we were.
And then came Allan, defiant, letting us in on the secret of the ages, supremely confident in the face of all evidence to the contrary, accompanied by a small boy swinging a smoking pot, leading us forth from the little church into the midnight air, bellowing forth “Joy to the World” at the top of our voices to anybody who had ears to hear.
The world cannot understand this hope of which we sing on Christmas Eve. In our more worldly moments, we do not understand this hope. But that night, for one fleeting, radical, scandalous, arrogant, defiant moment, I understood. With my eyes opened by incense and my appetite for joy whetted by a little bread and wine, and my hand still aching from the grip of a wise old woman who opened my clenched fist, all evidence in this barren silent night to the contrary, by the grace of God and Father Allan’s priestly act, I praised God and joined with old Zechariah, who sang before his expectant wife:
“The dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace.”Luke 1:78-79
First published in The Christian Century on December 5, 1979