Soon we will be singing Advent hymns in our churches and wondering where this passing year has gone.
December 25th falls on a Sunday this year, and I am already hearing questions about having worship services on Christmas Day. I’ve fielded such comments as:
“It is so inconvenient when Christmas is on a Sunday.”
“No one comes, and people are tired from the Christmas Eve services the night before.”
I have been asked if it would be alright to cancel church services on Christmas Day and perhaps even on New Year’s Day a week later, since the same kind of holiday issues exist. Few churches observe a Watch Night service, however; so the New Year’s Day concern is more about late-night celebrations than holy exhaustion.
It is true that attendance is typically low on a Christmas Sunday. Some churches have opted to have one short service with coffee and cinnamon rolls. And I’ve heard of at least one church inviting people to attend services in their pajamas.
All of this says that Christmas, when it falls on a Sunday, is inconvenient to many, and we are trying to find ways to make it work for us. Family gatherings and a million other holiday festivities compete with worship on that day.
But I call on all of our churches to persevere and continue to hold services in some fashion on Sunday, December 25. It is, after all, the celebration of Christ’s birth.
The truth is, Christmas, the real Christmas, has never been convenient. The birth of Christ came amid a time of political unrest. The Jews were an oppressed people under the cruel domination of Rome. The religious leaders were for the most part self-seeking, wealthy intellectuals who were more interested in maintaining the status quo than taking any prophetic stands on justice.
The circumstances of Jesus’ birth were certainly less than convenient. This Galilean couple made a hundred-mile trek across rough, unpaved roads, as the new mother-to-be rode perched on a donkey in her third trimester of pregnancy.
The birth event itself ends up happening in a rustic stable for animals, not exactly the cleanest or most comfortable environment. A murderous, unbalanced king seeks the child’s life and kills a swath of innocent babies in his foiled attempt at eliminating the competition.
There was nothing about the realities of this Jesus’ birth that was glamourous or even convenient. A fancy Hallmark card depicting the nativity with golden insert envelopes simply doesn’t tell the real story.
Christmas is still inconvenient, and it always will be. The coming of Christ ushered in a whole new paradigm whose purpose was to turn the world upside down, and not just a little.
Mother Mary, in the “Magnificat” describes the plan: “He (God) has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)
Simeon, the aged prophet in the temple, said similar things about Jesus at the time of his dedication: “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also) so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:34-35).
The best way to celebrate this newborn king is not just to show up for church services on Christmas Sunday. We should feel compelled—indeed, honored—to do the inconvenient and difficult work of justice ministries: sharing our wealth with those who are hungry for bread and for equality; speaking out when we see inequities and sharing power with people who usually don’t have a place around the table.
This is year-round ministry-in-action that celebrates the birth and life of Christ every day!
I challenge you to call your churches to a time of prayer and study during Advent. At my Days on the Districts meetings with clergy this fall I gave to everyone copies of a 40-Day Prayer Challenge book, titled Draw the Circle, by the Rev. Mark Batterson. You and your congregation could read this book, or one like it, as you prepare together for the celebration of Christ’s birth.
Through prayer and searching the scriptures the Lord will surely lay on your hearts what you need to be doing to “let justice roll down like water and righteousness as a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24) And what the Lord asks you to do won’t likely be convenient or easy; but the real work of Christmas means walking the difficult, dusty roads that Jesus walked, while bearing a cross on your shoulder.
So, before you sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” on that first Sunday of Advent, consider how you will observe an “inconvenient Christmas.” May your goal be to turn the world—your world—upside down with the love of Jesus all year long.