Lyrics guide Christmas message

Ministers reflect on carols' meaning

Staff WriterDecember 26, 2005 

Most people know the Christmas story even if they are not Christian: The late night. The manger. The baby Jesus. The swaddling clothes. The shepherds. The angel.

So on Christmas Day, the three ministers at First Presbyterian Church in Durham opted to go beyond a repetition of the familiar story and look for the meaning behind this holy day in the carols Christians sing. Instead of hearing a long sermon from the pulpit, the ministers sat on chairs in a semicircle and gave a short reflection on a verse in a carol that illuminated an aspect of Jesus' birth.

Three ministers. Three carols. Three different takes on the mystery of what Christians call the Incarnation.

Although some mega-churches around the country canceled Sunday services to be so that parishioners could be at home with their families, nearly all churches in the Triangle conducted services. Members of First Presbyterian, a mostly middle-class white congregation with a significant Kenyan immigrant community, wouldn't miss the opportunity for worship, caroling and reflection.

Here they learned from the Rev. Phyllis Kort that her favorite line from "O Little Town of Bethlehem" is "How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given."

"Christ's coming is not in the clamor and confusion or even the celebration that we create," Kort said, "but independent and silent."

And they learned from the Rev. Marilyn T. Hedgpeth that her favorite verse in "From Heaven Above to Earth I Come" -- written by Martin Luther, leader of the Reformation in 1531 -- reads, "Tis Christ our God, who far on high had heard your sad and bitter cry."

Just as God heard the bitter cries of the ancient Israelites groaning under the Egyptian yoke, so God came in human form to free Christians from the forces that bind them, she said.

The Rev. Joseph Harvard, the pastor of First Presbyterian, spoke of his favorite carol, "What Child Is This," and especially the verse, "Why lies he in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?"

For Harvard, Jesus' humble birth was proof that "there is no place so lowly for the presence of God, no situation so hopeless that God cannot bring hope."

At the conclusion of the service, members took communion, or the bread and the wine -- a sign, they said, of the way God has become one of them in human flesh. The nearly full church, a historic Gothic Revival edifice, was decked in poinsettias and red-bowed green wreaths.

Sipping coffee after the service, many congregants said they were puzzled that some churches had closed on Christmas Day.

Lea Bingham said her daughters, Gwendolyn Dilworth, 8, and Eleanor Dilworth, 5, had time to open their presents and come to church. The family, including father Rob Dilworth, were looking forward to spending the afternoon playing with new toys.

"I would always come, even if it's on a Sunday," said Bingham, referring to Christmas.

"It seems odd for a church to close on a Sunday," added Tim Strauman, another church member. Andy Henry said he was particularly glad he came because he enjoyed the alternative format. "It made me realize there are lessons in popular carols," he said. "I like a little variety."

Staff writer Yonat Shimron can be reached at 829-4891 or yonat.shimron@newsobserver.com.

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