When I was a kid growing up, our church back in Houston had 4 Christmas Eve services. 5pm, 7, 9, and 11. And as a teenager and young adult, I always seemed to be involved in more than one service for some reason. The high school youth choir would sing at one service, I would read scripture at another because my mother volunteered me, and I would attend one just as someone sitting in the pew, which was my favorite service of the evening.
Now, the 5 o’clock service went as well as could have been expected. It was the family friendly service with herds of children all running around and climbing over their pews while their parents attempted to listen to the sermon and not lose their place while singing the Christmas hymns.
The 7 and 9 o’clock services were a little calmer, with lots of out of town guests and way more people in the pews than the 5 o’clock service. You would usually see friends from high school you haven’t seen in a while, maybe for several years. Parents and grandparents. There’s lots of visiting after the service as people are filling out of the pews, walking back to their cars.
But the 11 o’clock service was the complete opposite. Instead of families with young children or lots of relatives, the sanctuary was filled with older adults sitting scattered throughout the dozens of pews. Instead of kids climbing around and squirming and dropping pencils, there was a profound silence within the worshipping body; a completely different scene. The message was the same as the previous services, however, you could feel a sense of wonder and awe flowing throughout the people that night, as they gathered together to celebrate God’s coming into the world. It’s as if the chaos and business leading up to Christmas was captured in the first 3 services. But the final hours of Christmas Eve bring a strange silence for those attending the 11 o’clock service. It’s quiet and dark, silent night is sung at the end with candles lit just a few minutes before midnight. You’ve smiled, you’ve embraced old friends with a hug. A gentle peace follows you home. Your heart feels light. Christmas Day will be here soon. Its the last few hours of the Christmas season preparation. And as the day comes to an end, you feel a since of relief.
To quote the great actor Bill Murray, who starred in the movie “Scrooged”, this modern day take on a Christmas Carol, his character at the end of the movie, has his moment life changing moment after visiting the ghost of Christmas future…he says this in what I feel may truly capture the Christmas spirit:
“It’s Christmas Eve right, it’s the one night of the year when we act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be”.
But then Christmas morning comes and goes. After weeks of preparation, hanging all the lights, decorating the house, wrapping all the presents, planning the meals, sending all the Christmas cards, Christmas comes and goes. We wake up and before we know it the holiday has arrived and departed. And for all the prep that we do, our expectations can almost never be met perfectly. We might not receive all the gifts we want, we never have the perfect interaction with our family without fights and arguments, we never get to experience God and faith exactly the way we expect and hope for.
A few days go by and maybe you make a trip to the store. I can almost guarantee you that by January 2, there are some stores that will have already put up Valentines and Easter decorations, probably the same stores that like to put up Halloween and Christmas stuff on September 1st.
So much for the twelve days of Christmas. The retail world will go on no matter what, and it won’t be too long until Christmas is out of our minds for another ten months or so, too. And by the time we make it to next Christmas Eve, the whole cycle will begin again.
Some of that’s natural. We can’t stay stuck in one season all year long. But I’m always a bit unsettled by how quickly we shift out of Christmas and on to something else.
But that’s why I love the church. No matter what is happening outside on the streets, in the stores or on the radio, inside the church we celebrate the real Christmas all year long. Not necessarily the traditional Christmas hymns or decorations, but the spirit. The birth of Christ, his death and resurrection.
We are not people celebrating Christmas at the end of the year. We are Christmas people all year long, attempting to live into that joy and peace every day, the same joy and peace that we seem to find so easily on Christmas Eve.
I don’t attend church because I’m a member here. I don’t come here because my wife insists that we should all go to church as a family. Although, my own mother and father did say that a few times to me when I was growing up. Hopefully that’s not hitting close to home for anyone here.
I’m not a paid member of the church staff. I sing in the choir and play guitar occasionally because I like music. But I’m an elder on session here. I help make church decisions and policy. The words of the Bible should just easily flow from my mouth. But they don’t. I probably know more lyrics from George Strait songs than I know scripture.
I go to work sites and build things with my hands, operate loud power tools, climb ladders. My work involves circuit breaker panels and the occasional cuss word. I have to work sometimes in a different world than the one I want to live in.
But I wake up on Sunday morning and know that my mind has wandered during the week. I’m supposed to be here today. I want to daydream about God and try to pray something to him that is worthy of his time. I want that Christmas feeling again, so I can be in awe and wonder of something I still struggle to understand, if only I could let my heart do more of the talking and quiet my mind. I want to hear the music, the words of Jesus, the Amens from the people next to me. I know I felt it on Friday night. I’m not here because I am a Christian. I’m here because I want to be a Christian.
Christmas Day is merely the occasion that a gift was delivered. It’s an anniversary for us to celebrate. It was the day that the original invitation was dropped in the middle of nowhere to unsuspecting shepherds and a young timid couple. An invitation for us to become part of a new world that goes beyond where we stand today. An invitation to become the people we always hoped we could be. And with the gift of Jesus Christ, God intended that it would be so.