When my mother first learned that our dearest childhood friend Jenny was seriously ill with an incurable disease, it was neither in her nature to willingly accept that diagnosis, nor to abandon hope. Instead she took to her knees, and began to pray passionately to God that He might cure Jenny.
As a mark of sincerity she made a silent promise that if God would heal Jenny she would give expression to her deep gratitude and devotion in a practical way, by working from then on to serve Him as a Sunday School teacher. Her prayer was not answered in the way that she had hoped but, spirit undiminished, she resolved to teach the classes anyway in gratitude for all the other gifts she had received and for all the other prayers that had been answered.
But not yet content and feeling her heart still burdened by the sadness and grief that had dwelt amongst us for so long, and mindful of the Christmas season that was now approaching, she determined to find some way of using that season of joy and goodwill to bring a sense of new optimism and purpose and happiness into our lives.
And so it was that my mother, quite out of the blue, conceived the idea of organising a Christmas Concert.
The plan was to bring together all these families - of their various Methodist, Anglican, Brethren and no apparent denominations - for one common purpose that would unify us above all those otherwise disparities and give us something to celebrate as one big family.
Although our separate families had exchanged Christmas cards with one another every year, yet due to our different church backgrounds, there was no one occasion on which we could all come together, adults and children alike, to celebrate this most joyous of times. Therefore my mother set to work with her own private vision and energy, drawing upon her new-found experience as a Sunday School teacher to devise a kind of pageant.
The venue would be our home. This single point in itself was a tremendous gesture on her part since she had always been a very private person for whom it did not come easily to entertain people other than close family in her own home. And so she set about preparing a musical production, the centrepiece being a play that would depict the birth of Christ, but which would also involve various humorous skits, songs and poems, concluding eventually with a round of carols in which all the parents could join, followed by small gifts for everyone and Christmas cake for supper.
From that point onwards our home began to bustle with the activity of children of all ages and sizes. For weeks in advance of the event they would descend upon us, breathless with excitement and the exertion of trying to be on time, each clutching their few scribbled lines of our Nativity play ready for rehearsal, or begging to show my mother some poem they had written and wanted to share with the neighbourhood, or screeching out a few notes on their recorders whilst imploring her to allow them to present a rendition of 'Twinkle, twinkle little star...'.
Now our home came alive in the most magical way. Christmas ornaments appeared from nowhere, destined to sparkle and glitter in stage lights that were, in reality, nothing more than a few strategically placed torches and my brother's desk lamp. The wide door way between our dining room and lounge area was made ready to be hung with the bedspreads that would eventually become our ‘stage curtains‘. The air became clamorous with arguments about costumes as children of all ages and stages rifled through the tangled heaps of sheets and tea towels that were destined to transform us into shepherds, wise men and so forth, shrilly comparing, insulting, and laughing at one another.
In a complete departure from my usual resentment, every night I would cheerfully wash the dishes after dinner, barely noticing the effort involved as I enthusiastically rehearsed the songs we would sing, with their obscure words and phrases like 'Hosannah' and 'Val de ree, val de ra', or practiced my special poem about spiders, whilst wondering if it might ever be considered appropriate for me, the smallest cast member, to play the role of Baby Jesus. In the end, this non-speaking part was much more suitably assigned to my favourite doll, on whose behalf I felt silently honoured.
When the night of the concert arrived, I was astonished to observe the changes that my mother had wrought to the familiar features of our home. Every trace of everyday ordinariness had disappeared. The glass doors that usually separated the dining room from the lounge were open, and now our long fringed bed spreads were draped theatrically to each side, looking for all the world like the heavy tasselled stage curtains of our local Town Hall. Every chair in the house had been gathered together and set out, so that our lounge room was now a wide circular seating area for the audience which was beginning to arrive and take their places. They, too, seemed different. I saw how our neighbours greeted one another with more formality than I had noticed before, moving obediently to take the seats to which they were directed.
Then the magic moment arrived for the ceiling lights to be turned off, one after another, until the room was darkened and only a few lamps and torches remained to focus on the curtains now being slowly drawn aside by Bruce and Johnny, crouched out of sight on either side of the doorway. A hush came over the room as beams of torch-light fell upon the still figure of Jill from next door - many years older than me and already possessing a certain innate dignity - who sat in sweet serenity in the centre of the 'stage' with my very own Baby Jesus cradled tenderly in her arms. I felt, rather than heard, a catching of breath amongst the group of parents, and I think that we all became a little lost in the spirit of wonder that this silent scene evoked.
From that moment on, all of us - performers, parents, brothers and sisters - were taken to another world, where there was no more grief and heartache, no more bewilderment and loss. The hope and vision that my mother had cherished in her heart had succeeded in its intent. Single-handedly arising to act on the promptings of her heart, she had changed our world, had reminded us of higher things and greater powers and filled our hearts with thoughts of peace, goodwill and brotherhood.
The concert was a spectacular success. As a piece of entertainment in those pre-television days it was hugely appreciated, but more than that, it changed our neighbourhood. Just as our once-familiar home had become transformed overnight into another, magical, place, so too did our neighbourhood change, and with it our collective sense of place in the world.
From that time onwards there would be a new awareness of connection amongst us. For years afterwards and even to the present time, someone or other might make mention of some aspect of the evening and we would laugh, or nod warmly, or grow silent with remembrance. We had become like some new type of family. Certainly there would continue to be neighbourly disagreements, and some mild rivalry, and the inevitable misunderstandings, but deeper than all that was the beginnings of a sense of shared history, of belonging, that transcended our various backgrounds, occupations, social standing and religious denominations. And the greatest effect of all was in the hearts of the children. We little ones had seen with our own eyes, in one magic evening, how all our different families fitted together. We had seen that our various churches - the different buildings and services and costumes and practices - really shared the most important things. We had seen with our own eyes the power of the life of Baby Jesus to change people's hearts, and bring strangers together.
That change that took place in the relationships amongst our neighbours, and in the minds of the children who took part began with a single thought in the mind of an individual. Armed with only the most basic expertise, the simplest of material resources, and the humblest of attitudes, my mother had shown me ‘the power of one‘. That concert was an emanation of her own mind, of her thoughts and her belief - borne from the experience of living through two world wars - in the imperative need for people everywhere to find ways of building a real spirit of love and unity amongst themselves, one that could prevail above and beyond our differences.
That childhood concert - exemplifying her practical commitment to fostering a genuine example of unity that in another person might have remained as no more than religious idealism - was more than just entertainment, more even than just healing the wounds of Jenny's passing. Its greatest influence was in the new recognition that we gained of ourselves, both as individuals and families and as a little community. She had shown how, by working together for a common cause, we could be elevated above the individual parts of which we consisted. She had show-cased the hidden talents of even the smallest of us, suggesting the possibilities that exist within individuals who otherwise considered themselves very ordinary and unremarkable.
We had been allowed to see the best of our own selves. Suddenly we were artists and actors and singers and poets. We were funny and serious and inspiring and thought-provoking. We had brought laughter and tears and awed silence and reverence. We had made our parents fall unusually quiet, and then become self-consciously proud, and finally expansively jovial. We were only kids but we, too, were making a difference in the world. From that power of one that my mother had acted upon, there were now many children who had come to see themselves as having something to offer, something that would make the world a better place. Surely this was the true love and unity for which Jesus had come into the world at that Christmas season. My mother had given me a model of how, in future years after I had become a Baha'i, I too would share the Faith of Baha'u'llah.
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