“…Love is like that. It is everywhere, holding life together and I saw it in the way you held each other on Christmas Eve.”
It may be true that society is becoming more secular and church attendance is in decline, but you would never know it by the crowds that show up for services on Christmas Eve. Year after year, it seems, I am caught off guard by the number of people who come to the altar to receive Holy Communion. More so than Easter Sunday or Homecoming, this is the day we want to be in church. A family needs only a faint memory to feel the pull. Grandma went to church on Christmas Eve, so we must.
It could be that for many of us, Christmas is a marker. We number our years by it, more so than our birthdays and New Year’s. We watch our families grow and age and we keenly feel who is missing. We hear familiar carols play in the background and become aware of what has taken place in our lives over the past year and tenderness rises to the surface.
As folks come forward and I say “the body of Christ broken for you” and “the blood of Christ shed for you,” I am greeted with smiles and warm gestures, but I also come face to face with plenty of tears. People cry in church on Christmas Eve, more so than other services, including the decidedly somber season of Lent, when we observe Ash Wednesday, Holy Thursday and Good Friday.
How is it that Away in Manger breaks open our hearts more than “…from dust you have come to dust you shall return, repent and believe in the gospel?” The latter are words spoken by the pastors when we smear the sign of the cross on your head with ashes. Maybe the expectation we have built into the Christmas season simply cannot bear the burden. “It is the most wonderful time of the year,” except when it is not.
Honestly, I do not have an answer for the emotions I witness on the other side of the altar rail. I simply honor them.
After this year’s Christmas Eve Service, Sandy and I settled into our quiet home. The Christmas tree glittered and our tea was hot. We spoke to our children by phone. One child is in her first year of residency; and that being the case; she was scheduled for hospital rotations. The other child, who recently married, arrived in Ohio to celebrate with his wife’s family. Sandy and I knew the day would come when their schedules would not jive with the holiday season and our desire to see them.
We spoke of our favorite Christmas movies and our son mentioned Love, Actually. The movie begins with an airport scene where family and friends are embracing one another as they arrive for the holidays. A voiceover says the following:
“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.”
The other thing I notice about Christmas Eve services is rarely do people show up alone. We most always have someone with us, or we meet someone who will sit with us. We seem to sit closer to one another and kneel at the altar the way we would at the dinner table, surrounded by fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. Frail people who normally would stay at home, struggle to the altar. They are determined to kneel with family. We come hand in hand and when we stand up from our kneeling we embrace. Whatever the burden you carried this season, I hope you will see that hatred and greed and all those things that worry and weigh us are far less prevalent than love.
I read recently that the universe is literally made of light, though we are unable to see most of it. Love is like that. It is everywhere, holding life together and I saw it in the way you held each other on Christmas Eve.