It's a storefront, the Atrium. High ceilings with painted tin, wood floors protected from small children's messes by area rugs. Gauzy white curtains blocking out the street from the children's view but also creating this bright indirect light that fills the atrium.
Shelves with works--a Montessori term--some look like playthings, others like kitchen equipment or miniature versions of vaguely familiar churchy things. Vestments that would fit a doll. A tiny altar and ambo. Sets that bring a deeper understanding of the Annunciation or Visitation--like tiny nativity sets, but about all those important stories of Advent.
The children note pretty soon after they walk in that something is different today, but they aren't sure. An older child, maybe remembering last year or the things we've been hinting at, figures it out. The prayer table is set with a purple cloth. There isn't a small white candle next to the bible, but an advent wreath. Even the purple vestment is on its post, a reminder that the season is new.
They sit in a circle at the end of the hour and a half, to think about the prophet's words: The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light. They aren't going to have the deepest thoughts about this. It's a first wave upon the shore for them. Growing up in the atrium is still ahead and these words will deepen in their hearts with time.
They pass the prayer object that Jillian has selected for the day. A polished stone egg. The directress prays for all children on this day, the feast of the patron saint of children, St. Nicholas. A few of the older children get excited. They put their shoes out last night, after all, and this morning there was candy. The faces of all the children change as they recognize this strange phenomenon when it is exclaimed. They, too, had candy in their shoes. And somehow this event is related to the atrium.
I take the egg in my hand as the bells of the church ring out 3 o'clock. Everything else is quiet around us, the children, the soft light filling the atrium, the handmade materials, the rituals and layers waiting to be unfolded by these tiny hands, so new in our church, in our world.
Amen, I say, handing the egg to the directress. She stands and makes the sign of the cross on each child's forehead in turn: He's got the whole world in his hands, he's got Jillian in his hands, he's got Billy in his hands...the children put their mats away and rush to meet their waiting parents.