ST. CUTHBERT’S Anglican Church lies at the top of a steep hill overlooking the picturesque fishing village of Northwest Cove, on the South Shore of Nova Scotia. On almost every Christmas Eve since Rev. Laura McCue has been in the parish, it has rained. “It is not postcard perfect,” says McCue, of the family service held inside this tiny church each Christmas Eve, “but it’s magical.”
St. Cuthbert’s is the smallest of the three churches in the coastal parish of Blandford. But it is home to the biggest service of the year, drawing up to 127 people, who overflow the pews meant for half that number. McCue thinks one of the reasons so many people come to the Christmas Eve service is “a sense of longing” at Christmas time. The service is so special, she says, because “we all take the time to recognize there is a God and there’s a lot of beauty and there’s a lot of hope. It makes for one magical moment.”
The hour-long service starts at four in the afternoon and draws many families who don’t usually attend any church. “It’s the fastest hour of my life,” says McCue, 40, who came to the parish in 2004, the same year she was ordained. “It’s action-packed.” Children are involved in every part, from drawing the image for the front cover of the bulletin, to welcoming people at the door and taking up the offering. Sheri Eaton, from Upper Blandford, designed the life-size animals the children helped to make. The goat is orange, the cow is bright green, yellow and brown. “It really has a barn kind of feeling,” says McCue.
Children act out the Christmas story as the gospel is being read. They sing easy-to-remember carols and end the service with their favourite upbeat carol, “Come On, Ring those Bells.” “Every child receives a bell. Some chime, some dong, and I play the guitar,” says McCue. Jackie Cleveland plays the organ and last year there were two more guitarists, making it a “real band,” says McCue. “It’s a sensory experience: lots of singing, lots of action.” McCue adds that the service and the preparations for it create beautiful memories for the children “that will last the rest of their lives.”
McCue regards Christmas Eve as a night of miracles and she finds plenty of evidence in the love and joy that ring out as the children take part in the service. It has become McCue’s favourite service and the children’s also. “They ask me, ‘Why can’t it be like this every Sunday?’ ”
McCue recalls just such a moment from last year’s service. Kaitlyn Zinck of Blandford, who was eight at the time, was playing the part of Mary, and her older sister, Leeann, aged 10, was playing the angel Gabriel. With no words, Kaitlyn’s eyes completely expressed “the scary and awesome news” she received from the angel. Later in the play, Katelyn knelt down with a doll, kissed it gently on the forehead, and laid it in the manger. “This was the movement of the Holy Spirit,” says McCue. “She taught us the meaning of Mary’s story. It came alive.”
So when children come to church at other times, McCue tries to give them all a role to play in the service. For example, both Zinck girls are now servers, or acolytes, with the important tasks of carrying the processional cross and helping the priest prepare the Lord’s Table. Meanwhile, their mother, Brenda Harnish, helps out by preparing food and organizing craft activities at other children’s events in the parish.
The service has become a jumping-off point for wider outreach in thecommunity. When McCue arrived in the parish, the congregation gave her a mandate to serve those outside the church. That suited McCue, who had worked in youth ministry and as a hospital chaplain and a chaplain to air cadets and army cadets across Canada.
As part of this outreach, McCue invites the whole community to what she calls a “parish check-in” at Advent and Lent. At one of these events, a girl who was being bullied wanted to know how many times she should forgive the person who was upsetting her. Her school friends knew she was being bullied and wanted to know the answer, too. McCue told them what Jesus had said when He was asked the same question by His friends. Jesus told His disciples to forgive one another “from the heart”- and not just “seven times, but seventy-seven times” (NIV).
Now, when McCue visits families, the children welcome her and have their questions ready. They also approach her in the community, calling out, “Hello Rev. Laura!”
One year, at the community’s Winter Olympics, a schoolboy asked her for a Bible. So she visited the boy’s home, bringing one of her own children’s Bibles and a small picture book, with Bible stories, for his younger sibling. Then she sat down and read to the children, to the amazement of their parents. “They’re children of God and this is their Lord, too,” says McCue.
Her response to seniors shows the same depth of feeling. “You can’t work on the South Shore if you don’t know a little Hank Snow,” she says. So she learned some country favourites and plays them when she visits the seniors’ home.
The joint focus on seniors and children is healthy all round, says McCue. In an aging parish, where chronic illness is a pressing concern, the presence of children in churc-at Christmas and throughout the year-is a tonic for the whole congregation. And the Christmas Eve service has become an inspiration for outreach during the whole year. “The dividends have been priceless,” says McCue.
Rachel Brighton and her family used to worship at St. Cuthbert’s. They now live in Bridgetown, N.S., and worship at St. James’ Anglican Church.