The rational ironies embedded in the practical implementation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ are satisfying soul food for the inquisitive, pondering Latter-day Saint willing to look beyond church culture.
It was pitiful. There was no other way to describe it. Even the Bishop cleverly passed judgment on the sparse Sunday Sacrament meeting congregation from the stand during opening exercises when he intentionally welcomed “brother and sister” (emphasis on singular) to church that dismal Sunday morning. A little over ten years ago we had approximately 230-250 seats filled, reaching back to the back end of the gym; however, ward splits and demographics and the economy had reduced our proud ward to mere a 70-90 members that morning. We were small clumps of families scattered throughout the chapel surrounded by huge force fields of empty pews.
We only had one Aaronic priesthood holder present so the Elders passed and the High Priests blessed the sacrament. The three assigned Christmas talks were separated by semi-impromptu musical selections offered up by the Primary, a select group of Relief Society sisters, and a small on-the-spot recruited Elders Quorum crew; our decimated, highly-distributed ward could not afford an official ward choir for this occasion. The sisters sounded heavenly, the children were weak but innocent, and the brethren, well… honestly they were a bunch of guys trying to make the best of a challenging situation. There were no carefully crafted ward choir Christmas programs; no powerfully moving hallelujah choruses; no ambitiously choreographed primary manger and angel scenes; and no dramatic readings of the second chapter of Luke delivered by an accomplished priesthood holder selected for their deep, impressive radio-quality voice. The annoying cry of a few irritated babies easily punctured the empty silence of the cavernous chapel and echoed off lonely walls to groups of saints scattered across the pews.
Then I remembered the reason for the season. Approximately 2000 or so years ago, a humble, poor new husband and pregnant wife, learning how to live as a family, made a difficult journey back to Bethlehem and spent lonely, frustrating nights in a nondescript stable giving birth to a baby boy. Surely these were not the preferred circumstances to usher into the world the Son of God who would teach us the Plan of Salvation, suffer for all our sins and sorrows in the Garden of Gethsemane, and die on the cross so that we could live forever. The struggling surrounding circumstances were humble and imperfect yet comfortable enough- much like our struggling ward’s Christmas program.
And then there was the cry of an irritated baby that easily punctured the empty silence of a lonely stable and echoed off the irregular mud and stone walls to those groups of animals scattered across the adjoining stalls.