With no oils, pencils or electronic devices, this is a Christmas card to paint yourself. When you are finished, we hope you hear the music, too.
Begin painting now.
Durham Cathedral — venerable, larger than life. A cold, rainy afternoon, everything feels grey. Inside, under the vaulted dome, candles pierce the pale air, lit by those who offered prayers earlier today.
It’s nearly Christmas.
The seats begin to fill. Some come decked in holiday fashion, red, green, glittery. But most in the pews are not typical church-going fare. They don’t pretend to be pretentious. They can’t attempt the superficial. Outward appearance is of no consequence. They’re out-of-sight, sometimes ignored, best tucked away.
The organ begins to play, the Cathedral choir files in.
To open the Nine Lessons and Carols we rise, sing “Angels we have heard on high,” and sit. In that gap of silence, from the creak of wooden pews and the soft shuffle of clothes, a deep male voice bellows a loud dissonant melody.
The program continues. No one silences the singer.
Simultaneously sad and beautiful, mentally handicapped of all ages begin to create a huge tableau of angels in paper wings, shepherds, “wise” men. So brave, so proud they walk the 201-foot nave to their designated spots in front. An angel loses a halo. A shepherd trips. The golden cardboard crown tips off the tallest wise man. In the course of each Lesson and Carol, the Cathedral crossing fills with a hundred colorful figures.
It is almost time for Mary, Joseph and the baby to complete the picture.
The narrator can read, but only just. He’s been assigned several long passages of scripture (the Lessons) which are also printed in our program. He stumbles over the simplest words, though he has practiced them for months. He skips phrases he can’t tackle, sometimes entire lines (giving new meaning to Synoptic Gospels).
Mary and Joseph make their entrance in wheelchairs. Baby Jesus cries during his entire appearance while the congregation sings, “Away in a manger.”
On that day when they are made whole — these angels, shepherds, wise men — decked in golden crowns and wings that fly, with voices raised in unison will come before His presence. “I wasn’t perfect and you took me in.”
This story predates my blog. On December 20, 2003 we attended a Cathedral carol service produced by MENCAP — the society for the mentally handicapped in County Durham. We were invited by our friends the Smiths who have foster cared the mentally challenged for years. I reread the story this year and was moved by the painting again.