EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was originally published in 2013.
We used to all go to St Peter’s on Christmas Eve. None of us were Catholic, but as far as we were concerned, they put on the best show in town. If you wanted to get some depth of feeling there was no place better than that big old majestic sanctuary imbued with tradition and incense.
The thundering pipe organ rumbled right through your chest, and candlelight winking in the dark seemed like distant cultural memories shining through from the faraway past.
It was like being in touch with old mysteries reaching back through the Middle Ages, with tradition spanning centuries of generations, right there on Mulberry Street.
The crowd was packed in shoulder-to-shoulder in winter coats, with people standing around the edges so there was barely room for the Knights of Columbus in their capes to elbow a path down the aisle. There was pageantry and trumpets and orchestral interludes, all of it still ringing back out of the high vaults even after the last note sounded. It was a service with lots of high points, like a great symphony that ebbs and flows.
Without any question, however, there was one outstanding highlight of the occasion every Christmas Eve that we always looked forward to. It was the reason we went year after year: it was when Beverly Freiheit stood up and sang "O Holy Night."
She had a voice that carried you with it right up to glimpse the edge of the sublime realms. When she sang you would discover you were holding your breath, to have every bit of your attention riding right along on the hymn.
People were quick to inform you that she had been an opera singer once — as if somehow special operatic training might account for the ethereal quality she brought to those few minutes of the year — but we knew no amount of schooling could create a sound so stirring. Only a soul that is pure and genuine and aligned with the One Soul can strike a chord true enough so that each of us small fragments can’t help but resonate to its tone.
We were just a bunch of irreverent teenagers, rough around the edges and barely even willing to be seen in a church, but there was in us a yearning, with such hunger, for some kind of honest emotion in the holiday season. None of the store-bought holiday meant anything to us, and not one of us understood what the religious backdrop meant, but we wanted so badly to be part of a tradition and have it move us somehow.
The one thing in all of the season that had reality, the one instance when all that tradition rang true, was when Bev Freiheit sang. In those few, fleeting, and precious moments there was no denying that something huge and timeless passed through our puny lives.
As it happened, that year we almost didn’t go to St. Peter’s on Christmas Eve. It was the year Bev had lost her daughter in a tragic car accident. She was, understandably, quite fragile, and no one had any expectation of seeing her stand up on Christmas Eve. Word was that no one would try to take her place, simply because no one could.
We were there, though, at Midnight Mass just the same. We felt we owed it to Mrs. Freiheit to be there even if she wasn’t part of the program.
The service passed as a dream and was nearly over when there fell a quiet pause, and then out of the darkness came the first sounds of a violin, playing a prelude as introduction for the familiar Christmas Eve hymn. First tentatively, then more surely and with confidence it laid a path through the quiet for the voice to follow.
It was "O Holy Night" and, unbelievably, the voice was Beverly Freiheit.
I glanced around and everyone I could see was looking down at the floor. At first I thought they were simply overwhelmed as I was, and then I realized that the entire church crammed full of people was praying for her.
She was walking a tightrope and that community had gathered to be her net. The tension was palpable, everyone holding their breath lest her voice should break, knowing that even a moment’s crack would let the floods of grief come pouring out.
But, miraculously, the hymn that rose from her was whole and untouched and unaccountably serene.
And then the most amazing thing happened. I was covering my eyes hoping it wouldn’t be too obvious how the tears were running down my face, but when I peaked out I saw that I wasn’t the only one.
Everyone in the great church was weeping. Women and men, strangers and family, united in tears. And no one wanted to make a sound that might in any way disturb the delicate balance, so the ragged breaths were muffled, the heaving shoulders were dampered down, every eye brilliant with candle glow and flowing in silence.
It was the ultimate paradoxical reversal: we had all expected her to cry and we wanted to lend her support, but instead she transcended above the pain and we were the ones who were all sobbing. It was like somehow, for a few moments, we all stepped in and took her part so she could be free to take a new role: that of an angel, and one who had come to comfort us.
When the song came to a soft close the place was in absolute silence.
The other day I was in a little store buying presents and there was seasonal music playing in the background, and I wasn’t listening but I heard those words: O hear the angel voices. It stopped me in my tracks.
The holiday season in our hearts is accumulated layer upon layer through the years: joy and sorrow, life and loss tempering the shadows of time to carve a many-dimensional form out of memory that has a vitality all its own. The past is ever there beside and within the present.
And every once in a while when I hear that song, its as if no time had passed at all and I’m there again at the Christmas Eve when I witnessed courage and grace bound together and forged into the soul of my community.