The Underground Cathedral

A few years back, I was asked to write a Christmas story for a newspaper. This story does not make me out to be a hero in any way, shape, or form, although it is a story with which some will identify. Some years ago, I was personally in a very dark place; my world was collapsing around me, and I felt bereft. It was a week before Christmas, and I was gathering with clergy friends for a Christmas luncheon at the Berghoff, a landmark German restaurant in downtown Chicago.  I arrived on time, as did my friends, and everybody was celebrating the day and the season, except me. Personally, I was gloomy and moody and wanted to run away. I couldn’t ruin my friends’ day, so I excused myself, got up, and left my meal. Lying, I said, “I need to use to use the restroom.” In an ignoble manner, I walked out of the restaurant without saying goodbye to my dearest friends. Walking two blocks, I entered the subway system under the city and planned to take the subway to the West Side where I had parked my car at the large medical

I can be smug, you know, and as a male, have been programmed to deny my feelings. I had mastered that program well. Down in the subway, under the city, buskers play musical instruments for coins. I wasn’t interested that day. I paid the subway fare and sat down on a bench facing the tracks. The train didn’t come for the longest time. I waited and was conscious of being the only white person taking the subway to the West Side. There were over a hundred African-Americans waiting for the train, too. I looked at the electric rail and thought, “If I took five steps and jumped, I would not have to face the bleakness of a Christmas alone.” The crowd grew, and still the train didn’t come. Out of the corner of my eye, a giant of a man took a saxophone out of his case and started blowing random notes. I thought to myself, “Oh no, don’t assault me with mediocre or poor music today of all days, the darkest day of my life.”

This man did not read my selfish, suicidal mind, and did as he had come to do. He began to play the carol, “Silent Night.” Still no train in sight, and I’m several stories below ground. As I listened, I became overwhelmed by my sadness. I became aware of people moving behind me. I heard weeping, and saw people walk over to the man blowing his saxophone and throw money into his saxophone case. I found myself sobbing and got up and went and threw my money in the case, too. Even though I was a minority individual, I suddenly felt more alive than ever. The people with me on the subway platform began singing, and I joined in. We weren’t racially different in that moment. We were all just people with different stories. In that moment my eyes were opened, and I realized that I was in an underground Cathedral. I remembered then that the Christmas story was not for the mighty, but for the dispossessed, disenfranchised, lost, hopeless, weak, and vulnerable. I had never considered what Christmas was like for the people standing or sitting with me on their way home or to work. I realized that these were simply folks traveling through time and space with me. The singing of a sacred carol, with that impromptu choir, snapped me out of my suicidal mood .

The friends I was having lunch with were the successful, powerful, and connected ones. The congregation I was with in the subway were the others, the ones the story was written about. I hate to admit it, but just as I became aware that I was experiencing Christmas, maybe for the first time in my life, the train arrived and like any high moment in life, the sacred spell was broken. That day, I became conscious and recognized that human despair can be transformed in the twinkling of an eye. For me, ever since that day many years past, I believe that there are mysterious, mystical moments that can happen if we welcome them and that those moments change everything. Regardless of your story, I wish for you a Christmas in which light will overcome any darkness you may be experiencing.

Buon Natale (Merry Christmas),

Copyright © *2022, First Church of Monson, Congregational, United Church of Christ
"No matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here."

5 High Street, Monson, Mass. 01057  (413) 267-3312

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