A Long December

And it’s been a long December and there’s reason to believe/Maybe this year will be better than the last/I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell myself/To hold onto these moments as they pass.

“A Long December” by the Counting Crows

The past month at Old South included two of the best attended services of the year. Any guesses as to which services I’m talking about? Christmas Eve perhaps? A unexpected surge in observing the religious significance of Advent? No, to both. The well-attended services of the past month were funerals, and in this case, two people who had been married to each other for a very long time. The husband died on Thanksgiving and the wife died a few weeks later, just days before Christmas.

For both funerals, the sanctuary wasn’t full, but it wasn’t too far off from being full. Plus, each service had a small group of individuals on Zoom. Attendance at our end-of-year funerals far exceeded attendance on Christmas Eve as well as the worship services of Advent. While I usually cringe when church folks start a sentence with “It used to be . . . “, I can’t help but remember the almost full sanctuaries of Christmas Eves past. It’s not just that they were well attended. I have clear memories of Christmas Eve services, during my tenure at Old South, that were so full of energy and wonder that a tear or two would find their way down my cheek— and I’m not one to cry easily at church.

In what seems like the blink of an eye we’ve gone from very full Christmas Eve services that felt not only full in number but in spirit as well, to Christmas Eve services that involve a lot of looking around, with the sense of wonder having little to do with the birth of Jesus, and much more to do with trying to figure out what’s happened to our church. The Christmas Eve attendance number for 2022 may be twice that of a usual Sunday, but usual Sundays have attendance now hovering in the lower twenties. Twice that number isn’t a lot. It’s important to recognize that numbers aren’t everything. I’ve written quite a lot over the years about numbers and the fact that numbers don’t tell much of the story of a church community. But, there is something about how the community feels when it gathers, something indefinable in the sense not only of community, but of its connection to the Divine. And, in that way, there’s something that has started to feel decidedly different.

Given that the Christmas Eve service in 2022 was sandwiched between two well-attended funerals, that sense of something different stands out in greater relief. While I could wish for a long December that would offer reason to believe that the next year will be better than the last, as the lyrics above imply, I feel the doubts creeping in. I fear that the long December of 2022 may bring more long months ahead.

I don’t like the feeling of pessimism about the new year, but our long December has led me to wonder a lot about what it means when a church community attracts many more people to a funeral than to a Christmas Eve service. I will be reflecting and pondering in the days ahead, hoping that the light of Epiphany and its accompanying season may offer a bit of wisdom and understanding, and a renewed sense of what a church community can and should be and do, regardless of how many gather.

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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