I have certain mixed feelings about Christmas. As a clergyperson, I find the holiday to be especially fraught. I not only have the usual craziness of the season—gifts to purchase for family and friends, holiday gatherings to attend and to plan, cards to send out (though that rarely happens these days), decorating the house, etc, etc. But, then there are the clergy-type responsibilities— special Advent observances, the annual Christmas pageant, the Christmas Eve service, etc. And, not one of them ever seems to be able to happen without some sort of drama.
At Old South this year, the planned Christmas Pageant had to be shelved when the writers (myself and a parishioner) discovered creative differences over the script. A new Pageant had to be found and planned in about a week’s time.
The Christmas Eve service (I know that I should be profoundly grateful that we have only one) has been in some disarray since September, when the music director was told by about half of the choir that they would be away for the holiday, and not available to sing for the big Christmas Eve service, which is usually the most attended service of the year. This unleashed a torrent of truly remarkable “solutions,” including the suggestion that Christmas Eve be “rescheduled.”
The solution that I offered set aside the usual “concert” format of the typical Christmas Eve service and put forth a lessons and carols kind of service. Somehow, this was not really considered seriously. Instead, we ended up with a “recital” night, with various individuals singing or playing instruments. We even had a community member, who had never set foot in the church before, singing a solo. Although I (as the pastor) have a lot of influence on the worship life at Old South, I’ve never had much say in the Christmas Eve service. It really belongs to the music program.
When it became clear to me that we were actually going to have more music, rather than less, what had to give to keep the service at a reasonable time frame? Of course, the spoken pieces. I cut the slot for an “alternative” piece (I love “The Innkeeper” and “The Shepherd” both found in Fred Buechner’s The Magnificent Defeat). I shaved a Bible passage or two.
I can’t help but be a bit agitated about the whole thing. Sure, music is indeed a very important part of the season, and a significant way of expressing and engaging our faith. But, there are times when I get the sense that music has become a handy way of keeping some distance from what’s really going on at Christmas.
In a part of the world that is so secular (Maine is one of the least church-going states in the country), I can appreciate the desire to keep one of the most central aspects of faith, yet certainly one of the most unbelievable—the incarnation of God in the form of a tiny infant born to a young woman who was not married at the time of the infant’s conception—at bay. It’s not easy to ponder deeply the meaning and mystery of Incarnation.
We don’t really know what happened at the first Christmas. The two Gospels that cover the event are decidedly different—yet each incorporates rich and fascinating, not to mention problematic, details that are well-worth exploring. The other two Gospels don’t even cover the birth of Jesus. This seems to me to be a profoundly important moment in which to consider our faith, and the basis of our faith.
Yet, it is lost in the “unenchanted forest of a million trees” (see “The Innkeeper”). We may attend worship, but the services are actually distractions from the real story. We would rather the comfortable, safe, and manageable, instead of what comes when we begin to dig into this seemingly familiar, but actually unsettling, story of God being born to a young woman (in a stable? In a house? Who knows?) who conceived by the Holy Spirit—apparently voluntarily.
There’s a lot in this story that Christians ought to explore. Some of the story is certainly hard to believe. Some of the story is truly disconcerting. And at least parts of the story that seem to be based on “facts” are not backed up by historical documents (the census, for instance). So, what are we doing when we gather for worship on Christmas Eve and/or Christmas Day?
We ought to know—at least to some extent. We probably can’t come up with all of the answers, but faithful Christians—and certainly those of us who are a very small voice, and by that I mean progressive Christians living in a place where most people either don’t go to church or are conservative Christians—ought to know more about why they do what they do, and what they really think and feel about Christmas, about the Incarnation of God.
I realize this isn’t an easy thing, and that it is a lot easier to fall into the same old pattern of what we do, even when the components are a little different. But we are missing out on something incredibly important when we ignore or hold at a distance, this familiar story, which is actually not so familiar. We ought to have a little more courage, and follow Mary’s lead, and to ponder, to wonder, and to ask those questions that we think we shouldn’t ask. It’s what faith should be all about.