A few years ago, part of our Christmas activities included an evening at Place des Arts, a performing arts centre in Montreal, where we went to see a special Christmas show with friends. The presentation, called Noëlissme (in English, “Extreme Christmas”), was a series of vignettes illustrating various traditional Christmas celebrations in Quebec.

The show was fast-paced and entertaining, although at times a little risqué. One vignette showed Santa going from house to house, getting behind schedule because he was spending too much time visiting all the attractive women in the town. The laughter demonstrated that the crowd of 2,500 had fully entered the humour and irreverence of the evening.

Then there was a change of scene and a change of mood. The new setting was a small village in rural Quebec and again there were several vignettes.

The spotlight came up on a young girl sitting and shivering in the village square. She had run away from home after a quarrel with her parents. They had said some awful things to each other. She desperately wanted to find the courage to go back home, yet as she sat there, tears streaming down her face, she argued with herself and finally concluded that she would not be accepted. She felt she could not go back.

Then the spotlight shifted to a man on the other side of the stage, sitting alone on a bench in the dining hall of a lumber camp. He was reflecting on his life and feeling the emptiness of it all. His slumped shoulders and vacant gaze revealed a profound loneliness. As he sat there, he began to mumble a simple prayer to “p’tit Jesus”—a phrase that’s a sort of coded prayer in Québecois for someone who has weak faith, but a deep spiritual and emotional hunger and sense of need.

Then the two scenes faded and the centre stage lit up, with crowds gathered for the Christmas Eve midnight mass. A tenor soloist caressed the words of the beloved Minuit Chrétiens (the original French version of O Holy Night) to the accompaniment of the grand organ. The rising passion of the anthem soars as the choir joins in the refrain, “Fall on your knees.…”

In that moment, you could sense the impact of the powerful words on those present at Place des Arts. The lyrics speak of God as man, who came down to us to wipe out our sin and set us free from our oppression. The whole world trembles with hope! We who were slaves can now become part of the family. The song climaxed with the soloist, full choir and organ raising this marvelous anthem of the wonder of the Incarnation.

Then the music faded and a sacred hush filled the room, bringing the first act of the show to a close. As we reflected during the intermission on what had just occurred, we were struck by the strange juxtaposition. An audience that five minutes before had been belly laughing at a ribald view of Santa now sat in reverent silence. The power of the message had touched an unanticipated chord.

We witnessed how a hunger for the gospel emerges in the most unexpected times and places. God was demystified when he came to us in Jesus. In him is found the answer to our most profound needs. As the wise writer of Ecclesiastes said, God has “set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). And when we realize it, suddenly Christmas makes a great deal of sense. 

Colonel Eleanor Shepherd is a retired Salvation Army officer.

Read Colonel Shepherd’s story, “I Knew You Would Come,” in Christmas with Hot Apple Cider: Stories from the Season of Giving and Receiving, available at hotappleciderbooks.com.

Feature photo: ©SOPHIE-CARON/iStock.com

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