Christmas Day, 2010
The Christmas Day service can be problematic, laden with overblown expectations born of nostalgia, anticipation and the theologically iffy premise that it’s the most important one of the year. An empty church is a letdown for the pastor and for the church family. The sanctuary should obviously be packed with worshippers eager to adore the Infant King! A full church means there are that many more people to please, that many more listeners hoping for a favourite hymn or a particular Scripture passage! 🙂 The message should address the specific needs and characteristics of the local congregation, but there may be guests, too, so the sermon should have a certain level of universal accessibility. There are traditions to uphold, but new ideas and technology beckon. The service can’t be too long because people all have additional plans for the day, but it can’t be too short, either, because everyone has made a special effort to come out for special worship on a special day.
Our service on Christmas Day was simply wonderful. The church was festively decorated. The Christmas tree was simply and solemnly adorned with white and silver ornaments. Banners with rich symbolism added dignified pageantry. There were the favourite old hymns like “Joy to the World” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” The litany to accompany the lighting of the Christ Candle was reverent and thoughtful. The pastor preached a strong sermon on Luke 2:1-11, highlighting the peace provided by contrasting rulers, Caesar Augustus, emperor of the vast Roman Empire, and the baby Jesus, lying in a manger. The screens displayed traditional images that worked well with the atmosphere and mood of the sanctuary.
The Sunday school children were as cute as ever, both the brash and the bashful, as they skipped or were coaxed to the front for their annual rendition of “Away in a Manger.” A slideshow set to “Welcome to the World” by Chris Rice highlighted a series of pictures of the Christmas story drawn by those same Sunday school children. To see the baby Jesus in a trough in a bright red barn was to find him right here in our own rural landscape. To see Jesus bent over double with the weight of human suffering, his tears a torrent raining to the ground, was to grasp his sacrifice anew. The life of Jesus, depicted by our own children and grandchildren, was suddenly immediate and intimate again.
The music was a highlight, too. An ensemble including piano and organ, two trumpets, two flutes, a French horn and a trombone accompanied our singing. Familiar songs were lifted to a higher level of meaning and joy accompanied by intricate introductions and unique harmonies. I started to get teary right when the dramatic “He is Exalted” was performed during the offering.
But it really wasn’t the decor or the sermon or the slideshow or the music that was making me emotional (again). No, it was the people behind the scenes. The regular people of my own church. Doing their thing. Giving their time. Planning. Preparing. Practising. The woman who researched the designs and stitched the banners on her sewing machine at home. The young people and adults coming together once a week to practise their music in spite of busy family activities, school, part-time jobs, and bad weather. The first time mother-to-be/Sunday School coordinator playing piano and the grandma still directing the little ones in their precious Christmas carols after thirty years. The creative techie who conceived and executed a profound power point presentation, embracing and enfolding our own children into the story of The Child. The pastor who played a trumpet and lit candles and found himself willing to do more than just preach his message. The guys who came on their tractors earlier in the week to clear the snow out of the parking lot. The eighty-year old who braved the snow and cold and pain in his knee knee to change the sign in time for Christmas Day.
I’m so overcome with love for my church that I just can’t stop writing about it. There is so much brokenness that can’t be spoken. So much brokenness that doesn’t even need to be spoken because the tears are still welling. There’s past pain and present illness. Irrevocable losses that reach backward and forward. There are absent souls remembered before the altar of the Lord, tenderly held by those who refuse to let them go. The longer you live with a people the more you see the stamina and courage it takes to keep trusting in a good God who loves us so much that he sent his own Son to heal us. And it’s not that these people are so holy. The longer you live with a people the more you see their weary raggedness and their inflamed blisters, too. And they see yours. And out of all this brokenness, there is still so much giving. That’s why every gift of service, in spite of the limping and lumbering, in spite of hidden miseries and private wounds, strikes me as heroic. A stepping into the breach. I’ll do it. I can help. I see a way. I still believe.
But it’s not just my own church I love. I love the church of God, the humble faithful gathered from the ends of earth and ennobled as his chosen bride. For he is indeed exalted within his house, as best as we are able to exalt him this side of glory. During the offertory, I was mesmerized by bits of light dancing and glimmering and bouncing within the shiny brass mouth of the trombone. I had a fleeting vision of a miniaturized host of angels joined with us in worship, still glorifying God today as they did long ago in the fields of Ephrathah. Our doxology was the triumphant “Glory to God/Ere Zij God.” I sang it in Dutch to honour my mom next to me in the pew and my dad in heaven, to salute those generations who faithfully entered their own kerks before me, who believed in their own time that God was good in spite of dungeon, fire and sword. The one holy catholic and apostolic church graven on his hand.
Our service next Sunday won’t be quite as elaborate. We won’t have an ensemble playing stately anthems. The decorations and Advent candles will have been put away. But that same tenacious little band of believers will be there and so will I.