In a candlelit sanctuary, as the clock ticks closer to midnight, children, teens and adults will read passages of scripture celebrating the birth of Jesus in an annual Christmas Eve celebration at St. John United Methodist Church.
The evening begins at 10:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 24, with a half-hour concert. At 11 p.m., a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols begins, interspersing readings with a selection of carols and hymns.
“Each year we hear again the story of Jesus coming into the world, into the darkness and bringing light,” said Jamie C. Garvey, music director and organist of the church on Greene Street in downtown Augusta.
“You start with these scriptures that have been read for generations, but we put new songs with them each year.”
The annual event draws hundreds, with standing-room only remaining, and benefits the United Methodist Children’s Home. It’s part of the Concerts With a Cause series, for which the performers donate their talents. A love offering is collected for a local organization.
“Every year I look forward to the Christmas Eve service with great anticipation,” said the Rev. Gary DeMore. “It is quite natural to get completely caught up in the intensity and the excitement of the season. But the Christmas Eve service allows us, if even for a brief moment, to move from the entertainment of it all to the enchantment of it all.”
The community has responded to that idea, Garvey said.
“At one of the darkest nights of the year, people are looking for the light,” she said. “They’re looking for some hope. They’re longing for some magic and mystery to their Christmas.”
The first reader at St. John’s Lessons and Carols is always a child. Teens or college students also participate, followed by adult readers, and finally, DeMore.
“It’s a climactic moment,” Garvey said. “It’s midnight and we sing Hark the Herald Angels Sing and it’s a great deal of fun.”
The concert prior to the worship service showcases the talents of the church’s 60-member choir and the musicians hired for the event. Most of the 18 orchestra members perform with Symphony Orchestra Augusta.
“It’s a fantastic concert,” Garvey said. “But then the atmosphere shifts. The candles come in and there’s a song and procession. It’s a holy, sacred celebration.”
It serves to remind worshipers of all that’s really important, DeMore said. “To think that a savior will be born, not just born, but born in us, is so overwhelming, so compelling a thought as to be almost unbelievable,” DeMore said. “That’s what this service does for me: It brings believability to the unbelievable. It is the greatest of gifts.”