It was Advent 1964. I trusted Jesus as my Lord and Savior earlier that year. I was 10 years old.
With Christmas approaching, I looked forward to one of the most anticipated Sunday evenings that Grace Baptist Church in Springfield, Tenn., would have – a Christmas cantata titled, “The Night the Angels Sang.” John W. Peterson’s 1958 cantata that heralded the angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth as told in Luke 2:8-20 was to be presented following months of rehearsals by the choir. I sat and listened to every practice. I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever heard.
For a typical Sunday morning service, the choir would total about 20 faithful singers, including Cecelia and Tracy Hinkle, my mom and dad. Mom would have me sit in the center section of three, second row of pews. Her reasoning: I would behave sitting in front of 200-plus congregants. She was wrong.
Like a fired-up third base coach, mom became proficient flashing signals to me from the choir if I misbehaved. I would get a stern managerial-like look as if she had eaten a persimmon. I would giggle. Her eyes widened, seemingly ready to explode as she pursed her lips. Then, as discretely as possible, she unsheathed a pointing finger. I knew then leniency was no longer an option.
I could be a stinker – except during Christmas cantatas and especially for “The Night the Angels Sang.” For a young boy in a small, tobacco-growing Tennessee town, cantatas were a big deal. After all, there would be 40 in the choir, instead of the standard 20 or so for regular Sunday morning services. Mom and dad always sang in the Christmas cantata. Mom with the sopranos, dad among the tenors.
It’s funny, but in the past 54 years I had not thought of “The Night the Angels Sang” until I sat down to write this column. As forgetful as I am becoming, I’m amazed I remembered it.
Back in those days Christmas cantatas were a far cry from today’s large, spectacular dramas with choir, orchestra, actors, elaborate props and costumes. Cantatas were appreciated for their simplicity in telling the story of Jesus’ birth. They were usually three or four “movements” or “acts” and the singing was sprinkled with narration from one of the men in the choir, usually quoting verses from Luke 2.
Just because a cantata like “The Night the Angels Sang” is simple in message and presentation, does not mean it cannot be effective. The sanctuary was standing room only the night the Grace Baptist Church choir presented it. It was a big deal to the church, the community – and me. Most importantly, there were often lost people in the audience.
Three things come to mind as I recall “The Night the Angels Sang.” First, as soon as the shepherds heard the angels, they hurried off to see the Christ child. How urgent is it for each of us to spend time with Jesus? Second, after the shepherds saw Jesus they made Him known to others. When was the last time we shared Jesus with someone? Finally, the shepherds returned to tending their sheep, glorifying and praising God for what He had done. As we go about our business, do we do so glorifying and praising God?
The commitment by those who performed it, was extraordinary. I recall mom and dad going to Larry and Charlotte Pratt’s house following Sunday night services for extra practice. Charlotte, a lovely piano and organ player, would play and sometimes peck certain parts so Larry and dad could hone their tenor measures and mom her soprano notes. The singing was fun around the piano, but the bologna sandwiches and Lay’s potato chips afterwards were a treat.
I have been blessed to have had a mom and dad who led our family to celebrate Christmas to its fullest. While cantatas have given way to other types of celebrations, not much has changed in our home as the whole family gathers. The Christmas ham maintains a commanding presence on the dinner table along with egg nog and the same fruit cake mom has baked for the past 65 years. But most importantly, Jesus remains the reason for the season.
As another Christmas nears, the memories of past ones are as sweet as mom’s pecan pies. Counted among them is a Sunday night just before Christmas 54 years ago. As a new believer, my heart overflowed with joy that night as the church lights dimmed and candle light filled the church. Then the choir burst forth with “The Night the Angels Sang.”