Sitting in the nave of the National Cathedral last week, I felt shivers as we sang “O come ye to Bethlehem” with those gathered at Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem itself. It was the first time I had attended the Cathedral’s annual Christmas Prayer Service that connects the two churches via simulcast. The prayers and songs ring from both houses of worship in English and Arabic. The connection and kinship I felt in that moment with those half a world away was unexpected, but welcome.
This service is an outgrowth of efforts to “lift up the need for justice and peace in Bethlehem and throughout the land, and to remind the faithful of the calling to be peacemakers.” If that first song brought shivers, it was another that almost brought me to my knees. The program listed O Holy Night to be sung by “Wadi’ Naoum, Soloist, Bethlehem.” I was expecting a woman in her twenties or thirties to sing, perhaps because many of the soloists at the Cathedral are women of that age.
As we watched and waited, a priest strapped on his guitar and then a young boy rose from the congregation and joined him at the front [minute 56:00 in video below]. I would later learn that Wadi’ is the son of the Dean of St. George’s Cathedral, the Anglican cathedral in Jerusalem. With the first note of his solitary voice, the shivers along my spine returned—his lone voice more powerful than any choir, more moving than any grand, orchestrated performance.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn
This boy, living in an occupied land, sang of hope and glory. His voice, this song were at once comforting and haunting. Tears welled in my eyes. As he sang Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices, I wanted to do just that—fall on my knees and weep. Weep for the country I have lost.
Long ago, as a young man in my twenties, I had once before lost my country. Watching as a generation of my gay brothers was decimated while most of the nation and its leaders shrugged their shoulders, I learned what many already knew —some lives matter far less than others. “Liberty and justice for all.” Not really.
But, with the election and easy reelection of President Obama, I had begun, after many years, to believe that America was changing. There were still plenty of signs that we have a long, long way to go, but I had come to believe and live the truth that as a nation we were becoming more inclusive, maybe even more just.
I don’t believe it any longer. With a swiftness and vitriol that shook the world, the other side of our national character has been revealed again. I have little doubt that much of the progress we’ve made in the past decade will be lost, lost along with the sense of common decency and respect ushered out the door this year. We are entering a cold, dark winter.
And, yet, I hold on to hope. Holding on has been hard, even impossible at times, these past weeks. I’ve been very blue, my heart weary. But as I listened to young Wadi’, I believed his words to be true.
Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
There is much happening these days over which I have little or no power. But on most days, I do have control of my heart.
On this Christmas, with Wadi’s voice in my ears, my heart holds on to the belief in what the columnist Michael Gerson describes so beautifully as the “unlikely hope that love is somehow at the heart of all things.” Let it be so.