Put on Your Coats and Come
I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” —Psalm122:1 (rsv)
The Christmas Eve service at our church begins at 11:00 pm. But for my husband and me—ever since meeting Dr. Li—it begins at home when we put on our coats to go.
We’d gone to China in 1981 to investigate a rumor that churches were reopening. In Shanghai, sure enough, we attended Sunday service in a redbrick church with a standing-room-only congregation. Afterward, we talked with an elderly physician who’d studied in the United States in the 1930s. For two decades, Dr. Li said, this church had been boarded up. Three months before our visit, it had reopened. “Our first service in twenty-two years.”
The first service, that is, inside.... The first Christmas Eve after the church closed in 1959 was just an ordinary night shift at the hospital for Dr. Li. It was cold and drizzly when he returned to his apartment at 10:30. He took off his damp coat—then, suddenly, put it back on. His wife put hers on too, and followed him outside. Through the icy drizzle they walked, left at the corner, across a square, turned right . . . headed to church. As they drew closer, they became aware of other silent walkers. From every side street they came, alone or in twos or threes, until hundreds were standing shoulder to shoulder before the locked door. For two hours they stood in the rain. No hymns. No sermon. “But it was Communion all the same.”
For twenty-two years, this was their Christmas service. No one planned any of it. “Just, that night, year after year, we put on our coats and came.”
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