I love Christmas Eve. Although that’s not always been the case.
Here’s a line from a journal, years back now, thankfully.
“I hate Christmas Eve. It’s too hard. Too rushed. Too many people with too many expectations. Too much stuff to juggle. God, I hate it!”
That from a pastor…
Thankfully after that confession, I opened my heart up more, wrote more, discovered where the feelings came from and got my heart back “online.” I needed to get back to the place of embracing the truth — I was known and loved.
Another Christmas Eve, 1989, had you arrived at the church when Click and Joyce Sharp had, you would have found me, as they did, one hour prior to the evening service, anxiously still typing the bulletin to get it printed and folded. They jumped right in to help. Gotta love them! ♥️
I was a bit ruffled.
Another year, I had this great plan of preaching in the dark about the light coming but hadn’t practiced preaching in the dark. It was totally black in there! I couldn’t see my notes, didn’t have a contingency plan, faltered, felt that feeling of shame flow through me, with all the names it knows for me. I stumbled through something and we went on. Rather than seeing that sense of failure as a means to grow, seeing in it a chance to really celebrate the gift ALL THE MORE, I instead used it as a means of naming, blaming and demeaning myself.
I remember that year, one of the members of the congregation came up to me, without me having said a thing about the inner lies, put a hand on each of my shoulders, looked me in the eye and said, “The Word went forth and God’s Word never goes forth without prospering.” I exhaled self-hate and inhaled faith.
Multiple years I’ve still felt the defeat the next morning and mt accountability partners got accustomed to my post Christmas blues email! It’s take a while growing into not getting named by shame.
It is not that I don’t love Christmas—I really do. The expectations just have been heightened perhaps on that night.
Over the years I have recognized how much stress was felt by every person involved in the Christmas story.
I wasn’t alone…
What is it like to ride 90 miles, by donkey, while 9-months pregnant if not stressful? And to do this WHILE enduring the memory of the rejection of family and friends because they considered you a sinner!
What was it like to be called to your birth town to register during a census, not knowing when the Romans might just decide to kill some folk for fun?
What was it like to give birth surrounded by animals in that cave in Bethlehem? What, no sanitation? And, where’s my mom?
What was it like for the shepherds, the least, the lowest class to be working in midst of the census?
What tensions reigned with Rome in town and so many visitors?
What of the fear and stress later as the wise men came then left and the town was beset by murderous soldiers?
It’s normal this stress we encounter — although now usually centered around the pace and expectations of the season.
One year, the 5:30 pm Christmas Eve Service was filled with chaos perhaps like Bethlehem that first Christmas.
Folk arrived to set up for the music, others for the food served before the service. We had a special skit planned. One of the main characters in our skit was bitten by a dog that afternoon and as a result, was awaiting rabies shots at the local ER. We did not know as of 5 pm whether or not he would make it, but we needed a contingency plan. So, I offered to take on that boy’s role and find someone else to play my original smaller role. As people entered, I buttonholed the dad of one of the parishioners, who was in town from Wisconsin and a thespian. He was willing to take the part if needed. At 5:15 it was confirmed that we would need to go with this plan B.
Making these arrangements took a lot of conversations, alongside the other logistics. We had a ton of people visiting, so there were many to meet, with genuine warmth and welcome alongside of all the rest. I don’t know what my face looked like, I’ve been told never to play poker, but it must have looked stressed.
At one point two of the young guys, 13 and 11, from that year’s confirmation class, Dylan and Jesse, came up to me and said, “Pastor Brian, we give you permission to breathe!”
Got to love these guys.
The Sunday before we had talked during worship about how breathing is essential in our lives and when stressed we often forget to breathe. We had spoken about how important it is to remember we are made “children of God” by the work of Jesus, from John 1, and how in the pace of life we can forget this idea and get so “grown up” we live life as if everything depended upon us. To remember to be childlike we might need to give ourselves permission, I had said that Sunday.
So, these guys came to give me permission. I took a moment and breathed in slowly for four counts, held it four counts, exhaled to four counts and then held it for four. It helped. You try it.
During the opening songs for worship, we brought this new guy up to speed, did a quick run-through, and then, we were on. The skit came off fairly well with one of the more experienced folk losing their place entirely for a moment. “Sorry,” they said out of character, and then launched back in. But in a quaint, silly way it was just what was needed.
The part of the service that is always magical is at the close of the service, when we are all circle around the sanctuary with lit candles singing Silent Night and then after the carol is done, we stand, silently, with lit candles for a moment. There is something beautiful at that moment. Something holy. Something precious. That night the folk soaked in the moment.
For me, at that moment, it felt like we are with those shepherds after the angels had left and there was that holy splendor left in the air. In that stillness and splendor, I find Jesus is so tangibly present.
It’s taken years to remember that Christmas isn’t about what I do or don’t do, but what’s been done for us. Fifty years ago my mom had written an essay about her own struggle with the season because of the pressures of performance and expectations. She arrived at the same conclusion.
Christmas isn’t a performance but an opportunity to step into anew what’s been accomplished for me and for you millennia ago. Step in, breathe into the reality, silence the voices that lie and allow that Voice of the Other, that good and merciful Friend to flow in and through you. “I did all this, son, daughter, for you!”
Soak it in.
Merry Christmas 🎁🎄