David and Leslie in Coral Gables are awaiting the birth of twins, due December 12. They are prepared! The nursery dresser is filled with clothes; the cribs are set up; a wise owl lamp stands ready to shed light. Steve and I have come to Boynton Beach earlier than usual to be nearby; Lilli and Violet have joined us to celebrate Thanksgiving in Coral Gables. Leslie is certainly ready for her double pregnancy to be over.
Preparing for babies this time of year recalls December 1973, when David was born. We hadn’t yet found a church home, but being “great with child,” I felt the spirit of Advent personally that year. No visit from Angel Gabriel, but a new awareness of Mary’s challenges and joys. We prepared our nursery, my mother came up from Texas and big sister Lilli could barely contain her excitement. And then our wonderful son David was born.
In 1977 we joined Cherrydale United Methodist Church. I soon got involved with the Children’s Choir. “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path” was one of our favorite hymns. Children easily relate to the comfort of lamps helping people find their way in the dark. In 1985 several of us started a Cherrydale tradition by staging a Living Nativity. Every year in a stable on the church lawn, costumed characters re-create the story of Jesus’ birth with carols and live animals. Indoors we greet our neighbors with more carols, cider and cookies. Last year’s Living Nativity included a particularly magical moment.
Now I sing in Cherrydale’s sanctuary choir. Since September we have been rehearsing several pieces for our annual Choir Concert on December 15, though I will miss it. One piece has especially resonated with me: “Keep Your Lamps,” a spiritual based on Jesus’ parable of the ten virgins, Matthew 25: 1 – 13. The parable contrasts the five young women who had their lamps filled and ready to light the way for a bridegroom, with the five foolish ones who ran out of oil and missed their chance.
There are many interpretations of the parable and many versions of the spiritual. In the days of the Underground Railroad, the spiritual had a hidden meaning. Singing it was a way for slaves who were contemplating escape to communicate and prepare for a very dangerous journey. My recent studies of Civil War and Black History have made me much more aware of their plight. The lyrics are simple, repetitive and haunting:
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning, the time is drawing nigh.
Children don’t get weary ’til your work is done.
Christian journey soon be over, the time is drawing nigh.
Here is the arrangement our choir has practiced. The recording is by the South Carolina All-State Chorus, directed by the arranger, Dr. André Thomas. The video shows artwork portraying perilous journeys by courageous people. When 4-year-old Violet and I watched it together, I found it hard to explain to her the suffering that impelled black people to leave the familiar and tackle the unknown.
So why sing this piece at Christmas? The Scripture concludes: “Watch therefore, for you don’t know the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.” The messages I hear are “be prepared, don’t miss your chance for freedom and joy; celebrate the birth of the Savior.” Leslie and David don’t know when their babies will arrive, but they are prepared and ready for joy, as are we. Freedom? Well, not freedom from hard work, but freedom for raising children safely and well. This year, for the first time in decades, I will miss Cherrydale’s Living Nativity and Choir Concert, but as Fran points out, our family will be having a “personal nativity.” Our lamps are trimmed and burning. I have faith that the Lord will light our way.