Across the night, his ears caught snatches of a song. He was too far away to make out the words but it only strengthened his suspicions that what he saw was the re-enactment of some ancient ritual. Closer the procession came, winding its way through the streets and gaining numbers all the time.
A bold plan came to him in that moment. If the people were making their way up the hill, toward the temple, the town would be deserted, and for a little while he might at least find safety among its empty houses, and possibly even a bite to eat. For though he was terribly afraid, his stomach made him painfully aware that he had not eaten for days.
Keeping low to the ground, he made his way toward the town. As he did so he noticed that the procession seemed to be slowing down a great deal and the sound of singing grew louder. By the time he had reached the out most buildings, he could almost understand some of the words. Or at least he would have, but they seemed to be in another language.
“Fac iter tutum superum,
Et claude vias inferum.”
Yet as he grew closer, he was surprised to find that the tune was vaguely familiar. Careful to remain hidden in the shadows, he crept along beside the houses, curious for a closer look. By this time the procession had all but come to a halt. Peering around a corner, he realised that the people were not in fact making their way up to the temple on the hill, but to a large building on the edge of town.
Warm golden light spilled out the doorway through which many of the townsfolk were hurriedly entering. At this close range he realised that the dancing flames he had seen floating before them were in fact those of lighted candles. These they extinguished on the way in.
He decided to wait until they were all inside before sneaking up for a better look. The singing gradually began to die down as the number of people outside dwindled, but all the while he wracked his brains, trying to remember where he had heard that tune before.
Finally, when the last person had entered the building and the door was closed to shut out the night, Jonathan snuck out from where he was hiding and edged toward the large stone structure which seemed to spring up from the ground, its top disappearing in into the darkness above. As he did so, the last lines of the song repeated over and over in his head.
“Gaude, gaude! Emmanuel
nascetur pro te, Israel.”
Surely it was Latin, he suddenly realised. And the translation…
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmauel
shall come to thee, O Israel.
The people had been sing O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. No wonder it had seemed familiar. He looked over the outside of the building once again, but this time a wooden sign, rising above the ground on two posts caught his eye. It was partly hidden by the shadows of the building, so he stepped forward to see if he could read it.
Jonathan drew back with shock and rubbed his eyes. Surely not, he thought to himself, it could not be!
He read the sign again to make sure;
Saint Joseph’s Church
There was no mistaking it. Somehow, seemingly impossibly, he stood before the church of his home town. As his thoughts reeled within him a new hymn started up inside.
“O come all ye faithful
joyful and triumphant”
How could this be? He had sailed for days; far away from home…was this a dream?
“O come ye, O come ye
Unless…The terrors of the storm flashed through his mind. Could he have become disorientated and been turned around in the storm? If he had lost his sense of direction, he could well have sailed all the way back to Kensworth when he thought he was going further out to sea.
“Come and behold Him
born the king of angels”
Jonathan suddenly tipped back his head and burst out laughing. Surely that was what had happened. It was the only feasible explanation. O, what a fool he had been.
“O come let us adore Him
O come let us adore Him”
Of course the people had not been making their way up to the temple on the hill, because there was no temple on the hill. He had spent the night among the ruins of Kensworth Castle. And of course the townsfolk had been out at this hour of night singing hymns because they had been on their way to Midnight Mass for Christmas.
“O come let us adore him
Christ the Lord.”
He had not been himself since his parents had taken him when he was a boy, before and accident had claimed their lives. But after having nearly lost his own in the storm, and all that had happened, he felt that his little “adventure” had changed his perspective on many things. He now realised that every breath he took might well be his last, and in that light, every breath he took was truly a miracle.
Children were grateful to Santa Claus for the wonderful gifts they found in their stockings on Christmas morning, it seemed fitting to him that he thank the One who had given him the gift of life.
Taking hold of the brass knob, set in the heavy wooden door of the church, he swung it open and stepped out of the darkness and into the light.
The congregation stood facing the sanctuary, joyfully singing out the Christmas hymn, but as he took his place at the back and joined in, some of the people turned around. When they saw him, shocked expressions spread across their faces, and a murmur quickly spread through the church that Jonathan Smith was back from his voyage.
Boys and girls, as well as men and women – young and old – craned their necks to get a peek. As a result, the singing dwindled until there was silence. That is, until Jonathan raised his voice.
“Glory to God in the highest
O come let us adore Him”
Hesitantly, a few voices joined in with his own.
“O come let us adore Him”
Then the rest of the congregation found their voice.
“O come let us adore Him
Christ the Lord.”
Jonathan awoke early the next morning, with the excitement he had one had as a boy. He drew open the curtains and a smile touched his lips. Snow had fallen overnight and the town was covered in a soft blanket of white.
After making himself a cup of hot cocoa, he sat down to enjoy the warmth of the fire he had lit before going to bed. He had left the church as soon as the Mass had ended to avoid having to explain himself; however after a good night’s sleep in his own bed, he was ready to answer as many questions as the townsfolk could throw at him. But not just yet. For a while he was happy to simply sit and listen to the crackling of the fire.
He might have sat there all day, entranced by the dancing flames, if he were not roused by the sound of children’s laughter out in the street. Donning his warm winter coat and wrapping a scarf around his neck, he was soon out the door and into the winter wonderland that awaited.
A group of children where throwing snowballs at each other, and as he walked along the street a stray one hit him in the chest. The children suddenly grew quiet, whispering among themselves. As he drew nearer the shrunk back, obviously afraid.
“A Merry Christmas to you all,” he said with a beaming smile.
“Merry Christmas Sir,” they murmured hesitantly.
He continued on his way and the sound of laughter started up again.
“Such a glorious day” he said to himself.
Birds fluttered overhead and the warm golden sun hung in the sky, taking away some of the winter chill. He exchanged Merry Christmases with the people he passed and the sound of carolling bounced around between the buildings, filling the air with joy and merriment.
Up ahead he saw Jones the innkeeper walking along with his family.
“A Merry Christmas to you and your family,” he called out.
“Merry Christmas Jonathan,” Jones replied.
“That must have been quite some voyage,” he added as they shook hands, “Short and to the point.”
“So what happened? You seem a changed man.”
“I was turned around in a storm and sailed all the way back to Kensworth, thinking I had discovered a new island. My ship was wrecked on the rock, but I managed to swim to shore.”
“Must have been terribly disappointing when you discovered the truth.”
“At first perhaps, but not really. I set out on a voyage hoping to experience adventure and discovery, and that is exactly what I got.
“After I reached the shore, I made my way up the hill and spent the night in Kensworth Castle, thinking it was some kind of pagan temple.
“Then, when I went out to explore and saw the procession on its way to Mass, I thought it was some mysterious cult making its way up to the temple to perform some kind of ancient ritual. It gave me the fright of my life, for I thought I was to be discovery, with what consequences, I did not dare to imagine.
“So when I eventually discovered where I was, and that there was nothing to fear, there was more of a sense of relief and joy to be home, than any kind of disappointment.
“I had gone off for an adventure because I had grown bored with Kensworth, yet it was Kensworth which gave me the adventure I had been longing for. I was blessed to see this place with the eyes of a stranger, and that was the perspective I needed. To see it as if for the first time. And when I did, I saw it for what it truly is, a place of wonder, adventure and excitement…and my home.”
“Well,” Jones said after a moment of silence, “It sounds like you had quite a time. What do you plan to do now?”
“I don’t know, and to tell the truth, I don’t really care. I think I’ll just walk about town for a while and enjoy the snow.”
“So you haven’t any plans for Christmas lunch?”
“No, I wasn’t exactly planning to be here for it. Besides, I wouldn’t know where to start. I haven’t celebrated Christmas since I was a boy.”
One of Jones’ let out a sound of shock.
“Well it’s about time you celebrated it again,” said Jones, “We’ve more than enough food. Come over to our place and you’ll see how it’s really done.”
“You mean it?”
“Well that’s rather good of you. I think this calls for a song.”
So off they went, Jonathan Smith and Jones and his family, singing at the top of their lungs;
“Joy to the World, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King
Let every heart prepare Him room
And Heaven and nature sing
And Heaven and nature sing
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing”
– The End
About the Story
The inspiration for this story comes from G. K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy. He begins it by talking about a story which he never wrote, a story about a yachtsman who left England to discover new lands, only to be turned around in a storm to land at England, thinking it to be a new place. As such he looks on familiar things as if for the first time.
Chesterton gives this example to discuss what he considered one of the great challenges of our lives, namely, “how can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?”
Although Chesterton never wrote the story I thought that there was no reason why I couldn’t give it a go. However, I decided to set mine at Christmas time. For there is another challenge we all face; how can we endeavor to be astonished at the events we celebrate at Christmas when they have become so familiar? Perhaps we would do well to try and see them with new eyes, from a new perspective and see them as the shepherds would have on that first Christmas. That by seeing the as if for the first time, we might rediscover what they truly, mean for us all.