Reflections on Christmas in a Strange, Strange Year

In the midst of pandemic, a divided country, and the prospect of a Patriots-less NFL playoff season, it’s hard to know how to think about Christmas.  On the one hand, keeping things as close to normal is appealing.  Church gatherings and services will continue to be held online, but they will have the trappings of gatherings of the past.  On the other hand, it seems like we should keep going with the paradigm breaking.  What else can we do to push the boundaries of how we gather and how we observe this important holy season?

Old South’s Worship Team meetings through the fall have included considerable discussion regarding the significance of the familiar aspects of the Christmas Eve service, our most well-attended service of the year.  At this dark and cold time of year, in the midst of a global pandemic and our continuing online existence, shouldn’t we endeavor to make the service as close to “normal” as we can?  Shouldn’t we offer something cozy and comfortable, that in the midst of so much disruption, those attending might find solace in the tone, rhythm and content of the accustomed Christmas Eve service?

Those arguing for the usual service (or, as close as we can get on Zoom) have been persuasive and a feeling has grown among the small team, that familiarity is the way to go for this holiday season.  And, that’s what we will have.

But, as we inch closer to Christmas Eve, I’ve been wondering if we are making a mistake.  While something that feels like the typical service—despite everyone being at home rather than in the sanctuary—is understandable, my concerns are growing that we are doing something that will get in the way of an opportunity to experience Christmas in a whole new way, a way that could be substantial and significant.

At the heart of the Christmas story is a profound notion:  that God came to share our common human lot, from the very beginnings of human existence in the womb through birth and childhood and on to adulthood.  How remarkable it is that we worship a God who did such a strange thing—such a mysterious, wondrous and hard to understand thing.

I’ll admit that it’s a fairly common experience for me, that as we get closer to Christmas Eve, I begin to feel a bit of angst.  This angst is related to the feeling that many of those who attend the annual service do so out of routine and habit, looking for something of a Hallmark moment, as if the Christmas Eve service provides something akin to a large, warm, fuzzy blanket.  Those assembled have the glow, in the midst of the candlelight, of the comfortable and soothed.

I’m not sure what I’m looking for, except that I think I would welcome a face or two that demonstrates shock or bewilderment, at the story we so casually lay out every December 24th.   The story, after all, is an astonishing tale.  Regardless of whether or not the birth of Jesus really happened as it is laid out in Matthew and Luke (whose accounts don’t really line up with each other, with Mark and John silent on the matter), it’s an amazing thing that these stories became the stories of how Jesus came to be with us.  It ought to mystify, and disconcert.  It ought to feel at least a little unsettling.

This year, I can completely understand the pull to the familiar and comfortable.  We are experiencing so much disruption, why should be purposefully create more?

Still, I can’t help but wonder:  is this the best way of approaching Christmas Eve in this strange year?  It’s not that I want to completely upset the usual routine, but I wish that I had done more to persuade the Worship Team to try something different, to use the opportunity to consider the holy-day differently, to perhaps provide an experience that could be both comforting and unsettling.

While comfort is a good thing, and certainly part of our experience of God, new awareness so often comes in experiences that unnerve and surprise us.  Shouldn’t we seek to do more with surprise, in the midst of so much that is unsettling about this year’s Christmas?  The comfort of the familiar is not actually the comfort most of us need.  Instead, we could use the comfort that comes after we’ve been startled—by the unexpected nature of how God usually comes to us.

Our Christmas Eve service will tend to the familiar and comfortable, but my prayer is that those who gather in the Zoom Brady Bunch boxes will experience something much more than comfort. My hope is that in the astonishing story of birth in the midst of a remarkable year, a new awareness will take root: our faith calls us to seek God not in the familiar, but in places we have, until now, dared not go.  The challenges of 2020 could lay the groundwork for helping us to consider anew the old, old story, and to wonder afresh about who we are, to whom we belong, and how we are called to be.

May Christmas be not only merry, but meaningful, wonderfully new and joyously unsettling.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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