As a kid, Christmas Eve was one of my favourite services of the church year. I can still hear the congregation and choir singing “Glo-o-o-o-ria, in excelsis deo” in 4 parts. I can close my eyes and easily picture the darkened sanctuary, with stained glass dimly glowing in the night. The crowded and full congregation often meaning that we didn’t get to sit in our familiar family pew, but instead a new spot that afforded a new view of proceedings. It was fun to go to church at night for some reason.
Combine that special service with all the family traditions: our Norwegian menu for Christmas Eve dinner (thankfully Lutefisk was a rare sight), gathering with grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins, opening presents, singing carols and staying up late!
Christmas Eve was indeed a special night, filled with memories and nostalgia. I am sure many of you feel the same way.
And then came my first Christmas Eve as a pastor. Things had already been a little dicey. The congregation was used to having a pageant on Christmas Eve, but didn’t have the kids or teachers to pull it off that year. So I was roped into coming up with something, and we decided on the Sunday school kids singing some Christmas carols and reading the nativity gospel. Let me assure you, conducting a kids choir is not a seminary class. Regardless, we practiced and prepared for the big night.
Knowing that there would be a lot going on, I planned to arrived 15 minutes earlier than I usually did for most Sundays. On my first Christmas Eve, I walked into the church at 5:45 PM for a 7PM service expecting to have a few minutes to myself. Being an hour early most Sundays gave me that opportunity.
But when I walked over to the church (across the field from the parsonage) the lights were already on, the doors open and several cars already in the parking lot.
Inside and already sitting in the pews where about 15 people, none of whom I had seen before. This totally threw me. I wasn’t ready to be welcoming and greeting people for over an hour before the service started. We made it through, but it wasn’t my most enjoyable Christmas Eve.
The next year I got to the church 2 hours early, which left me with 30 minutes to myself, but the night was still a challenge.
I will confess that, since becoming a pastor, Christmas Eve has taken a sharp fall off my list of favourite services of the year. Most Sundays folks don’t arrive with a complete vision of what is going to happen in worship. And as a pastor it is hard to live up to all those expectations (let alone my own Christmas Eve memories) on the most highly attended service of the year.
It is also hard to find something to preach that cuts through all that expectation.
All this adds up to a night that usually fails to live up to my own Christmas Eve desires, and a lot of stress about trying to provide something that meets the desires of others.
Now, you probably know where I am going with this.
After last year, when no one’s hopes and dreams for Christmas were met, we find ourselves in a place that we did not expect to be this year. Even just last week, we were pretty sure we were going to get something a whole lot better than watching our computer screens or iPads. Today, as I write this, we are living under a cloud of uncertainty. We have decided to suspend our in-person services.
Once again, this Christmas Eve will not meet the expectations of our memories and nostalgia.
But a secret that I learned after those first couple of challenging Christmas Eves as a pastor… unmet and unrealized expectations are, in fact, at the heart of the Christmas story.
The first Christmas was nothing but things not going as folks expected. An unwed teenage mother, a fiancée who was not the father, no room at the inn, shepherds and sheep crashing a birth, and the Messiah born into this mess in the back corner of this supremely unimportant place in the world.
Leaning into all the ways that this story of Messiah’s birth challenges our expectations and challenges our versions of what Christmas ought to be is sometimes precisely what we need.
Sure, I would rather just be trying to meet all the regular expectations about Christmas Eve than having to deal with a relentless pandemic with bad timing.
But I also know that the promised Messiah is born regardless. Born to a people walking in darkness. Born to be our new light in the world.
If Messiah could be born in a stable in 1st Century Judea, Messiah can meet us wherever we are and how ever we worship on Christmas Eve.