First of all...Happy Hanukkah! The Jewish Festival of Lights begins today. Like every other holiday it feels like it is early. However, it is not the worst thing to get on with it right? So if you celebrate this holiday, I hope you have the best one ever. If you don't, maybe it is worth taking the time to learn a thing or two about it. We live in a diverse society. It is important to understand our neighbors. The link above is a very basic introduction that might give you some ideas of where to go next....
Welp...its happened. We have wall-to-wall tasks and meetings until some time in the new year. That is OK. The trick is to leave time for at least some of what we always have done. The great thing about Advent is that people like things pretty much the way they were last year and the year before. Tradition is reassuring, after all. Not only that, it is necessary. Rituals help us to relax our rushing brains in order to think on higher things. These rituals may be formal--like communion--or it can be casual, like watching Miracle on 34th Street. Sometimes--particularly if our kids are young--we talk about starting "new traditions." Of course we don't know if it is really a tradition until a few years in. In that sense, all traditions are old...but some are younger than others.
Anyway, as is traditional, I will be posting some old texts from previous years here on the weblog when things get too busy for me to maintain any newness. I know I have been sharing a few old things already. That is because it is fun! Here, though, is a longer essay from back in 2017 during the second week of Advent when things were picking up and there was so much to do. In that way it is just like today! Anyway, it about the tradition of Christmas Eve services and also about the quest for meaning when the secular world doesn't really want us to have one...
Practicing with Candles
I need to do tasks today. Some are Advent tasks others are "so we don't starve" tasks. I try to front load this month as time becomes its own precious commodity the closer we get to the "big day". This is true for everyone. However church is one of the places we see this pressure the most.
Whether we are members of some sort of congregation or not, we want some religious and spiritual element to the holidays. For those of us who celebrate Christmas, we want to feel it, not just buy it. There aren't a lot of places left where you can do that anymore. Therefore, people bring these desires with them to worship. Some people--just as with Christmas shopping--wait until the very last moment. The first and only time we see them is at Christmas Eve. That is OK. Still, it poses a challenge for the church. Frequently, the ones for whom this is true carry unrealistic expectations about what can be done in 50 minutes on one December night.
On the 22nd of December we usually start getting calls from people "shopping" for a Christmas Eve service. They always ask the same question. It isn't theological. It isn't even expressly religious, though in many ways it is profoundly so. What they say when we pick up the phone is "Do you light real candles and sing Silent Night at the end?"
The answer of course is "yes." It would be like Springsteen--after three hours of every song he knows--forgetting to play Born to Run. We love the candles. We love how they make us feel. It is a favorite moment of many members in the church. Yet members aren't the ones calling the office. They already know the answer. The ones who call are searching for something in their season that they haven't found yet. Many of them aren't entirely sure what it is. To them church--any church--might be the sort of place that will have it in stock.
I don't mean this in a bad way. We love to have visitors in church any old time. It is great to know that people are having feelings right now that may lead them to a deeper spiritual place. In fact we would love to have these callers cease to be visitors and become friends.
Besides, why wouldn't you ask about the candles?! It's an important part of our holiday experience. I merely bring this up as an observation of the simple fact that there is something...lacking in the lives of many people. I repeat myself for clarity. There is a lack, not in the people themselves but in the lives they find or feel they must follow. There is a quest for meaning that is with us all year. However--for some folks--it is only in the crazy mixed-up holiday season that they get to recognize it.
This is because we often recognize the spiritual dimension of our existence through its absence. On the one hand there is a story of a poor baby born to an unwed mother under trying circumstances. This child and his parents are part of an oppressed minority. Strangers in a strange town, they are repeatedly rejected by people who could help them until, finally, they settle for the corner of a barn. On the other hand we are told to mark this moment by buying sparkly things, toys, and food. We commemorate their suffering by engaging in our conspicuous consumption. Whether you believe the literal truth of the story or not, the contrast is jarring.
I am just going to say it. The Christmas Eve service--as lovely as it is--is a strange part of church life. It is where religion slams right up against consumer demand, creating a tangled mass of emotions and desires for people. There are competing constituencies. Partly we are a religious community gathered for a service of religion. Partly we are putting on a show for the secular holiday that dominates the culture. The people who call are sincerely interested in the religious and spiritual dimensions of the last night of Advent. When they ask about the candles they are merely using the language of the season, which isn't religious. It's transactional language. "Do you have the thing I want?"
Make no mistake about it. Christmas is mostly secular. One of the two major stories is religious but in that "Jesus vs. Santa Claus" battle, Santa dominates the series. There are plenty of folks who will tell you that it is the "holiest day in the Christian year". If they tell you this, it is a sure sign that they aren't paying attention. As a church holiday, Christmas is in the first rank of the second raters. Easter is number 1. What comes next in the holy-day importance varies by sect and personal preference. However, in the clergy parlor game of holiday ranking, Christmas rarely gets higher than 6.
That's OK, though, right? Of course it is! Solstice celebrations pre-date Christianity for a reason. We need a party. It's all good. Yet, it is also important to know what we are looking at. Christmas is a Hallmark event. It's like Valentine's Day. Someone figured out you could boost the economy while singing carols, lighting candles, and putting a tree in your house.
This is the challenge; Essentially there are two holidays on December 25. They use many (but not all) of the same symbols. One is spiritual. One is commercial. Each of us has to do the math as to how much of each we will participate in.
This is why the holiday I like best right now is Advent and not Christmas at all.. Advent is harder to monetize, so if that is your holiday, you are pretty much left alone. It has an added benefit, too. Since Advent is explicitly religious and minimally co-opted, I can prepare my self for actual Christmas (which begins--but doesn't end--on the 25th). That is, I can stay spiritual on Christmas Eve. I love it. However, I try not to make too many demands on it.
Part of the reason that my own tradition didn't really start celebrating holidays--including Advent and Christmas--until the 19th Century was because they believed (and still believe) that every day is equally holy. So, as with other holidays, Advent is a practice for me. It doesn't usher in a more sacred time but helps me to see the sacredness that is always there. Christmas Eve is also a practice, one made more effective because I do not require my spiritual life to come at me in one big dose.
Those callers, though. Sometimes they get me down. We do, in fact, have the thing they want. The problem is, people don't get it from a one-off worship service. It comes from years of walking a path of discernment in a community of fellow travelers trying to live their ideals.
Are houses of worship the only places these communities can be found? No. However, at least at Eliot Church, that is what you find. It is what we do every single week. The spiritual or religious experience doesn't come from a holiday. It rises from a practice.
Sometimes, however, these phone calls excite me. As I have already said elsewhere this Advent, we are on a journey that starts with a single step. Christmas Eve is an awesome first step to have. We gather together--friends and strangers filled with a vast wealth of experience and stories--to push back the dark and bring our own warmth in the midst of the cold.
So yes, of course there will be candles and Silent Night. Please come join us for that sacred and holy hour. Then--if this is the only time you ever visit--maybe after the New Year, when life returns to somewhat more mundane pursuits, you might want to drop back in. We will still be here to help you find what you seek.
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.