Even if your shopping is complete and the gifts are wrapped, the pastor knows that there is one more thing to do before Christmas morning. Hold Christmas Eve Services. Whether you are preaching, celebrating the Eucharist, leading the prayers, singing the carols, handing out bulletins, or greeting people at the door, it is a big moment in the annual life cycle of a congregation. Has it become too big?
It is a privilege to be sure. Leading worship or preaching the message on Christmas Eve is an honor. I always pray that our services and my sermon will honor my King’s birth. Plus, the glory and the beauty of a candlelight service create strong memories for people. Attendance is typically higher. The beauty of the liturgy is always more special at night. And then there are the Carols of Christmas; the old songs are powerful in their tune and theology. And some of the new ones are deep and wonderful too.
In short, it is a great event that should bring glory to God and communicate the Gospel. But, after 32 years of ordained leadership, I have to admit: Christmas Eve is the most wonderful and most difficult service of them all. There are so many issues, challenges, opportunities, options, cultures, feelings, theologies, traditions, and practices in play.
They dance like sugar plums in my head, as it were. Not surprisingly, here are twelve:
1. The familiarity of the biblical story has numbed its impact on the modern ears. There are plenty of misunderstandings about the Christmas story, but most everyone thinks they know it cold.
2. It is hard to make choices. Most every major point of Christian theology is embedded in the story.
3. What about the Second Coming? Christmas is not just looking back to the first birth of Christ…but looking forward to His return.
4. The beauty of the evening setting and the power of the moment may eclipse the message of Christmas itself. Candles and carols in the evening are beautiful all on their own.
5. At the end of the calendar year, many people are in a somber mood about their successes and failures.
6. There will be grief in the congregation as well. The traditions around Christmas make it especially difficult for those who have suffered a personal loss. Memories are hard to live through in the holidays.
7. It’s a mixed group. Strong believers and confirmed skeptics are in the congregation. It is not your Sunday morning crowd. I often wonder exactly which of these hearers will hear the message. Who am I trying to reach?
8. Sadly, it is hard not to see the attendance numbers as some gauge of success. We all tend to compare this year’s attendance numbers to last year’s…and to some other churches. Bah Humbug!
9. Some who attend will already have had a bit too much eggnog. Sleep may start to set in!
10. It is hard not to feel this is the one chance to reach nominal believers until next Easter. Should I try and ‘swing for the fences’? (Why shouldn’t ever Sunday sermon be the moment that we want Christmas eve to be?)
11. Certain members of the congregation, excited and sugar-filled children will be very distracted. And noisy.
12. I will wonder about my own inadequacy too. How can I prepare and lead the congregation into a celebration of God’s incredible love and faithfulness through the ages and in the Incarnation…and his promise to come again in power and glory…and still not have all my presents wrapped?
I am sure that every pastor would be able to add to this list. But these are things I am thinking about…and have thought about for the past three decades at Christ Church. (But this year, I pass the duties on to my successor, The Rev. Canon Paul Donison. I am cheering him on from a distance.)
Reposted from December 2014. Photo: Used by Permission