Christ comes—despite a Christmas Eve fashion crisis and a season almost too busy for worship. Two first-time pastors reflect on Christmas 2011.
By Cecelia Armstrong and Esta Jarrett
In the Michigan church where I grew up, Christmas Eve worship was the one service to which most people wore informal attire. I recall wearing pajamas to Christmas Eve worship as a child, so that when I got home I could go straight to bed in anticipation of Christmas morning. When I’ve gone home for Christmas as an adult, I’ve noticed that the dress code for Christmas Eve worship hasn’t changed. The adults wear jeans and tennis shoes, and the children come dressed in pajamas.
As Christmas 2011 approached, I knew things would be different. For the first time, I wouldn’t be in Michigan on Christmas Eve. Instead, as the new pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Lantana, Fla., near West Palm Beach, I would be responsible for leading worship.
Still, despite being in a new location and away from my biological family, I thought Christmas Eve wouldn’t be that different. The candle lighting and Christmas carols would be the same. The atmosphere of preparing for Jesus’ arrival would be the same: in the weeks prior to Christmas, families would light the Advent candles, and children would practice their lines for the Christmas pageant. I expected all the memories of my childhood Christmas experiences to be replicated in my Florida congregation.
Christmas Eve was a day of packing for me, since I’d be traveling to be with my family in Michigan immediately following Sunday-morning worship the next day. Assuming Christmas Eve worship would be like the informal services I was used to attending in Michigan, I didn’t spend much time on my hair and makeup. I wore my comfy black dress with the snowman on the front and the line of playful snowmen dancing around the hem. I’d normally wear this dress with boots, but since I was in tropical Florida, I wore flip-flops.
When I arrived at the church to set up for the service, I noticed one member in a suit and tie. It was the first time in my three months as pastor that I had seen this member wearing a suit and tie in church. “You are truly dressed for this occasion,” I commented. He smiled and said, “Of course I am. It’s Christmas Eve.”
Although his reply seemed odd, I continued with my preparations. Soon the man’s wife walked by me, wearing a sequinned top and a long, formal skirt. I hadn’t seen her in a dress since my ordination in October, but I told myself that maybe they were planning to go out on a really nice date after worship.
As soon as worship began, however, I observed that everyone—even the visitors—had dressed up for the occasion. Apparently I was the only one who didn’t get the memo about the proper attire for celebrating Jesus’ arrival.
The experience made me realize how easy it can be for outward appearances to become the focal point of worship. But when we truly seek Emmanuel, “God with us,” and learn to recognize God’s presence in one another, we are less likely to focus on attire. After all, God looks at our hearts. On that Christmas Eve in Florida, I learned that whether we are overdressed or underdressed, God receives us as we are. And we can receive Christ just as we are—whether we’re wearing dress shoes or flip-flops.
My heart opened, and I worshiped
the Word made flesh who came to dwell among us.
Let’s face it: Christmas can be overwhelming. All that shopping and music and merriment can wear a person down.
For me, “overwhelming” doesn’t even begin to describe last year’s Advent and Christmas season. I was only a few months into my first year as pastor of Canton Presbyterian Church, a small congregation in a paper-mill town nestled in the mountains of western North Carolina. Not only did events on the church calendar flash by at a hectic pace, but there were also no routines or safety nets for a fresh-out-of-the-box pastor like me. Everything was brand-new.
When our Christmas Eve Service of Lessons and Carols finally arrived, I looked out at the radiant, candle-lit faces of the congregation and felt a bit dizzy. I wasn’t sure how I’d gotten to that moment. I’d been too busy to worship.
The sanctuary dripped with decorations, mostly handmade. Members, their families and friends, and visitors filled pews that often sat empty during the year. The service, a glorious celebration of light and song, left everyone glowing with the promise and glory of Christ’s birth.
And then came Christmas morning. We had debated what to do about this service. Because Christmas came on a Sunday, some said we should cancel worship. Most people would be too busy with their families to want to come to church, they insisted, noting that worship attendance is only 20 to 35 people in a typical week. After the glory of Christmas Eve, why risk the depressing prospect of empty pews the following day?
Others, myself included, argued that the fact that Christmas was on a Sunday made it all the more important to gather for worship.
In the end, with much shrugging of shoulders and comments like “We’ll see who shows up,” we decided to go ahead and schedule worship on Christmas Day. We did make one logistical concession: we would use the simple liturgy for a service of morning prayer from the Book of Common Worship. As weary and drained as I was, it was lovely not to have to plan an entire Sunday-morning order of worship.
There were 12 of us in the congregation that beautiful morning. Given the dire predictions, I was relieved to see even that many people. Sunlight streamed in through the windows, lighting up faces that had been in shadows the previous night. Despite the smaller crowd, the sanctuary felt as full as the night before; hugging and laughter took the place of candlelight and crowds.
I encouraged everyone to sit in the front two pews, and I sat with them. Our music director played the piano instead of the organ, and we sang carols shoulder to shoulder.
Everyone filled out cards with prayer requests that I included in our prayers for the day: “We pray for all we love on this Christmas morning, those in this room and those parted from us. We pray for those on the road, for their safety and peace of mind. We pray for all those we miss today because of illness or injury, those for whom Christmas joy is hard to come by.” It felt immediate and intimate, like a conversation between friends and God about the people we love.
As our little group celebrated the day of Christ’s birth, we sensed that we were part of a throng of believers singing the eternal song “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” For a moment, the seasonal spinning top of hectic activity slowed and stilled, and we found ourselves at the center of pure joy. Standing among these new friends, these faithful Christians, my heart opened, and I worshiped the Word made flesh who came to dwell among us.
HELP for new pastors, small congregations
Esta Jarrett and Cecelia Armstrong are serving their congregations through an innovative program called For Such a Time as This: A Small-Church Residency—Growing Leaders, Growing Churches. In Fall 2009, this program began pairing small, underserved congregations with recent seminary graduates in a two-year pastoral residency relationship. For Such a Time as This was launched by the Presbyterian Mission Agency in response to the growing need for leaders to serve in the challenging and rapidly changing context of the 21st century. During the two-year residency period, pastoral residents are supported and guided by a network of mentors, including other pastors and leaders from the presbytery and national church.
What does the name mean?
For Such a Time as This, from the Old Testament book of Esther, draws a parallel between Esther’s unexpected rise to leadership in her own day and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s call.
Why is it needed?
About 4,000 of the denomination’s more than 10,000 congregations average fewer than 50 people in attendance each Sunday. Many of these churches are surrounded by people unreached by the gospel. Most of the congregations could grow with the leadership of a Presbyterian pastor, but they have had difficulty calling one. This program helps them connect with candidates seeking their first call and surrounds the pastor and congregation with support.
How many seminary graduates have been placed?
Since the program began, 22 recent seminary graduates have been placed in 26 congregations in 10 presbyteries.
How can I support this program?
For Such a Time as This is currently seeking gifts so that the program can continue to help reenergize and renew small congregations. For more information or to make a gift, visit the website.