The Last Word


Uncle Kees' Christmas Rebellion

Pierre Van Paassen

During my boyhood in Holland, Christmas was by no means a joyous celebration. Our spiritual leaders clung to the interpretation handed down by that gloomiest of men, John Calvin. Even the singing of carols was considered tantamount to blasphemy, and festive candles and gaily decorated fir trees were deemed pagan abominations.

But one old-fashioned Calvinist Christmas lingers in my mind with delight.

It was bitter cold in the great church that morning, for the vast nave and transept were unheated. Worshipers pulled the collars of their overcoats up around their chins and sat with their hands in their pockets. Women wrapped their shawls tightly around their shoulders. When the congregation sang, their breath steamed up on faint white clouds toward the golden chandeliers. The preacher that day was a certain Dr. van Hoorn, who was a representative of the ultra-orthodox faction.

The organist had sent word to my Uncle Kees that he was too ill to fulfill his duties. Kees, happy at the opportunity to play the great organ, now sat in the loft peering down through the curtains on the congregation of about 2,000 souls. He had taken me with him into the organ loft.

The organ, a towering structure, reached upward a full 125 feet. It was renowned throughout the land and indeed throughout all Europe. Its wind was provided by a man treading over a huge pedal consisting of twelve parallel beams.

In his sermon Dr. van Hoorn struck a pessimistic note. Christmas, he said, signified the descent of God into the tomb of human flesh, "that charnel house of corruption and dead bones." He dwelt sadistically on our human depravity, our utter worthlessness, tainted as we were from birth with original sin. The dominie groaned and members of the congregation bowed their heads in awful awareness of their guilt.

As the sermon progressed Kees grew more and more restless. He scratched his head and tugged at his mustache and goatee. He could scarcely sit still.

"Man, man," he muttered, shaking his head, "are these the good tidings, is that the glad message?" And turning to me he whispered fiercely, "That man smothers the hope of the world in the dustbin of theology!"

We sang a doleful psalm by way of interlude, and the sermon, which had already lasted an hour and forty minutes, moved toward its climax. It ended in so deep a note of despair that across the years I still feel a recurrence of the anguish I then experienced. It was more than likely, the minister threw out by way of a parting shot, that of his entire congregation not a single soul would enter the kingdom of heaven. Many were called, but few were chosen.

Kees shook with indignation as the minister concluded. For a moment I feared that he could walk off in a huff and not play the Bach postlude, or any postlude at all. Down below, Dr. van Hoorn could be seen lifting his hands for the benediction. Kees suddenly threw off his jacket, kicked off his shoes, and pulled out all the stops on the organ. When the minister had finished there followed a moment of intense silence.

Kees waited an instant longer while the air poured into the instrument. His face was set and grim and he looked extremely pale. Then throwing his head back and opening his mouth as if he were going to shout, he brought his fingers down on the keyboard. HALLELUJAH! HALLELUJAH! HALLELUJAH!

The organ roared the tremendous finale of Handel's chorus of *Messiah*. And again with an abrupt crashing effect, as if a million voices burst into song, HALLELUJAH! HALLELUJAH! HALLELUJAH! The music swelled and rolled with the boom of thunder against the vaulted dome, returning again and again with the blast of praise like breakers bursting on the seashore.

Kees beckoned to me. "More air!" he called out.

I ran into the bellows chamber, where Leendert Bols was stamping down the beams like a madman, transported by the music, waving his arms in the air.

"More air!" I shouted. "He wants more air!"

"Hallelujah!" Leendert shouted back. "Hallelujah!" He grabbed me by the arm and together we fairly broke into a trot on the pedal beams.

Then the anthem came to a close. But Kees was not finished yet. Now the organ sang out sweetly the Dutch people's most beloved evangelical song: "The Name Above Every Name, The Name Of Jesus," sung to the tune very similar to "Home, Sweet Home."

We sang it with all our heart, Leendert and I, as did the congregation on its way out.

It was a tornado of melody that Kees had unleashed. Mountains leaped into joy. The hills and the seas clapped their hands in gladness. Heaven and earth, the voices of men and angels, seemed joined in a hymn of praise to a God who did not doom and damn, but who so loved, loved, loved the world.