Seeking simple Advent joy during the pandemic

‘Small Church Christmas Eve’ webinar has ideas for doable, meaningful services, family activities

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

the Rev. Karen Ware Jackson

LOUISVILLE — Churches small and large and everything in between can celebrate Advent, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day even during a pandemic, so long as they’re willing to innovate — and perhaps simplify.

The Rev. Karen Ware Jackson, co-senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Greenville, North Carolina and webinar coordinator for Practical Resources for Churches, said during a Friday webinar she titled “Small Church Christmas Eve” (watch it here) that she like many others “will be sad not to see candles filling the precious space of the sanctuary” this Christmas Eve.

“It’s hard to think of a Christmas without singing,” Jackson said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Jackson shared an Advent prayer for the current situation written by a Presbyterian pastor, the Rev. Kelly Fitzgerald, which says in part: “God-with-us, we have a long list of things we want to see on Christmas Eve. Experiences we want to have, feelings we want to feel, friends and family we want to hug, songs we want to sing, and even cookies we want to eat. We hold all that before you today … But still, Christmas will come. You still show up in our world and fill us with awe and wonder. You will once again renew our hearts and minds to fully hope, to express unconditional love, to share contagious joy, and find peace — peace that passes all understanding.

“We release to you the ghosts of Christmas past and ask for the Spirit to fill us with energy and imagination for the Christmas that is to come. In your holy name, Amen.”

Jackson said she plans to send one advent candle to each family at the church where she and her husband, the Rev. Rob Jackson, are in ministry together. She plans to use the “One Candle” Advent liturgy she wrote for 2020, which includes these opening lines:

“Light one candle for hope.

Because the world is broken and the wait is long, but hope just won’t let go.

Hope holds space for all our longings, lingers on the edge of harsh reality like the dawn gently awakening the sky.

‘Keep awake,’ she whispers, ‘for the world is being made new.’

So we light one candle, because it only takes one: Christ with us.”

“I think it would be powerful in Zoom (worship) as everyone lights a candle at the same time,” she said. “I think there’s a simplicity to it that makes it workable and adaptable.”

For those churches worshiping on Christmas Eve in-person but perhaps outdoors, luminaria placed along the sidewalk leading to worship “can help guide the spirit of the Christ child to be residing with us,” Jackson said. One church she knows plans to anchor its luminaria with canned food to be later donated to people in need.

“You can write words of hope, peace, love and joy, and prayers for people who can’t be with you” on each luminaria, she said.

She said she’ll work to keep the church’s Christmas Eve service to 30 minutes. “There’s a lot going on” that evening among most church members, she said. “We’re trying to drill down to the most simple and most powerful.”

A favorite Christmas Eve passage is John 1:1-18, “a really beautiful poem for older youths and adults,” she said.

Another idea is for families to take a “Silent Night” star walk on Christmas Eve, an idea from another Presbyterian pastor, the Rev. Traci Smith, in her book, “Faithful Families for Advent and Christmas: 100 Ways to Make the Season Sacred.

“Just take a walk and look up at the stars,” Jackson suggested. “Think about the magic, mystery and beauty of the time.” After arriving back home, family members can discuss what they saw during the walk that reminded them of the beauty and majesty of God. “What a beautiful thing to remember,” she said, “as you go to bed on Christmas Eve.”

One Advent activity Jackson plans is something she’s calling “Christmas Car-ols.” All you need, she said, is an automobile tuned to an all-Christmas-music station, or maybe a favorite CD. After driving up to the home of church members or friends, “car-olers” will roll down their windows, invite the church folks to step outside for a few moments, and then bless them with a carol or two. “You don’t have to sing,” she said, “to have music.”

Simple Christmas pageants may be called for this Advent season. As Luke 2:1-20 is read via Zoom, church youngsters can act it out in a costume they’ve gathered, or receive one dropped off in advance.

This Advent, a Blue Christmas or Longest Night service can be especially needed, Jackson said.

“In the midst of merry and bright and cheer, of fun carols and cookies and parties, there is a real sense of loss for some people,” she said. “The idea (of a Longest Night or Blue Christmas service) is to hold that Christ, the light of the world, comes to us all. Hold that sacred space that you don’t have to be happy all the time this year.”

A Blue Christmas service “can be a powerful touchstone for a lot of folks,” she said. “In the pain, there’s also hope.”

“Even in the midst of a world that has become so familiar with waiting, change and transformation,” Jackson said, “we are experiencing so much that in previous Advents we had only talked about. Now we are living into it, which is different and glorious.

“I wish you an Advent season full of hope,” Jackson said to close the hour-long webinar, “and days full of peace and purpose.”

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