Christmas Eve 2020
As much as I looked forward to retirement, it turns out that I’m not very good at it. At least that is the way it has been feeling this week. In our working life, Christmas Eve was one of the longest work days of the year. There were some enormous stresses that occurred on that day. But it was also a day to which I looked forward each year. It is difficult for me to explain.
The earlier Christmas Eve service, in my opinion, is one of the most challenging services for any pastor. It is the “traditional” service, a “when we always” event for the congregation. In contrast to many other services, it is a service that the church plans primarily for itself. Sure, there are a lot of visitors. It is a big service and well-attended. The visitors, however, are mostly former members of the congregation. College students are home for the holidays. Other young people bring their families home to celebrate with their parents. There is a huge pressure to have the service reflect what people remember from prior years. This is especially difficult for a new pastor, who is expected to know all of the local traditions. People just expect the pastor to know what they want and aren’t very articulate at expressing what those expectations are. The carols must be the right ones. The visual effects must be the ones people remember. In the congregation we served for the last 25 years, the star had to move across the walls to the front of the room in just the right manner. I know this because I was yelled at on more than one occasion when it didn’t go off as planned.
A family friend, who worked in retail all of her life, commented to us once that people talk a lot about Christmas spirit, but the closer Christmas comes, the less of it they show. Some of the shortest tempers and some of the harshest words I experienced in my career came on Christmas Eve. One year a long-time parishioner, who was angry about events in the church that had occurred over the past year, decided to write his anger and frustration on a Christmas card and present it to me about a half hour before the start of the early service. I should have just put the card on my desk and dealt with it later, but I read it before I headed into the service. It didn’t help me project the mood that is expected on the occasion. I started the service close to tears.
I learned not to take all of the Christmas Eve pressure as personally, but it took me years to learn that lesson. I learned to channel that stress in ways that didn’t take such a heavy toll.
In contrast to that first service, however, the late service on Christmas Eve was, for the span of my career, one of my favorite services. I looked forward to that service with great eagerness. It was the culmination of the weeks of Advent preparation. The late service was, in my experience, one with the highest attendance by people who were not affiliated with the congregation. In Rapid City, we set our midnight service in response to the change in shifts for shift workers. In contrast to other congregations, our service was at 11:30 pm, so that those who worked a 3 - 7 shift at the hospital or in law enforcement could attend the service. That service became popular with people who didn’t often attend church. It drew seekers and single people and folks who felt they didn’t fit in at the earlier service. It was quiet and reverent and peaceful. The candlelight set just the right mood. I spoke the scriptures from memory instead of reading them from the book. The communion was intimate. I felt connected to those I served. The midnight tolling of the Christmas bell sent us off into the new day with renewed hope.
In order to make all of that work, we learned to plan our Christmas Eve activities as a family carefully. We had a special Christmas Eve dinner, but it was served early. We had family traditions that were planned for the short time between the two services. Our shopping and wrapping and preparing had to be done in advance to allow time for the work of Christmas Eve.
It is different this year. It would have been different even if we had not retired, with the pandemic forcing congregations to explore alternate ways of worshiping together. I’ve already checked out a listing of online Christmas Even programs. You no longer have to travel to see a particular congregation. You just look it up on the Internet and watch it at your convenience. We have a special Christmas dinner planned with our son and his family and we had extra shopping to make sure we had all of the things we needed, but that has been done. Yesterday, I was wandering around the house wondering what I was supposed to do. I’ve never felt that on December 23 before. Our son stopped by our house after work yesterday. I asked him what the plan was for today. He said, “There is no plan.” He has the day off and will spend it with his family. I’ll probably go to the farm to be with them, but I’m not good at “There is no plan.” I’ve decided that I’ll do some work in the shop that is flexible. I have a project that will take more than one day that I will start if I can’t figure out what else to do.
In contrast to other days of retirement, today doesn’t feel like a vacation or a sabbatical. It just feels weird. I need to remember a lesson that took me years to learn as a pastor. It isn’t about me. It isn’t about how I feel. It is about the people I serve. It is about the story I tell:
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth to Bethlehem of Judea because he was of the house and lineage of David. He went with his wife Mary, who was great with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered and she brought forth her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.”