Under the Cloak of Darkness: Christmas Day, 7am

Photo by L.C. Nøttaasen on FLickr.com
Photo by L.C. Nøttaasen on FLickr.com

When I first created a Facebook event for my Sacred Pauses book launch, I mistakenly listed the time as 7am instead of 7pm. I thought a friend might have made a similar mistake when I saw her post about a 7am Christmas Day worship time, but incredibly, yes, she really did plan it that way! I’ve already posted part of my interview with Heidi Epp, and here’s more on her experience.

At a time when some churches are dispensing with Christmas Day services altogether, why would anyone plan a Christmas day worship for 7am? Not just once, but three years in a row??

The idea came to me as I was reflecting on the spirit and meaning of Christmas. I was troubled at the distress that so many have around the Christmas season, even or perhaps especially, in the Christian community. I kept getting the sense that many felt burdened by Christmas rather than tingling with anticipation at the season of advent and the gift of the main event, Christ’s birth, Emmanuel, God with us.

I myself struggled with the sense that planning and preparing for Christmas was more a responsibility than a joy for people around me.

The question that seemed to drive many decisions in preparing for Christmas, even in the church seemed to be, “How can I celebrate or feel like I’m celebrating Christmas without being stressed, overwhelmed, or inconvenienced? Can I have it on my terms?” The child-like faith, hope, joy and exuberance was shy to show itself.

Why? I started to consider that the problem might be in the question. Perhaps it’s in trying to avoid the stress and inconvenience, or how we engage them that is so burdensome. Are we missing the point?  Was there anything convenient about that first Christmas for Mary, or Joseph, the shepherds, or even the wise men? What if any of them had said, “Count me out! It’s all just too much for me, it’s overwhelming and I just can’t handle it! This isn’t reasonable. Why can’t things be calm and peaceful like a Robert Bateman painting?”

Now, I’m not suggesting anyone should sacrifice mental or physical health, but it seemed secular expectations were happening at the expense of God’s story and gift, and I think that’s where the burden comes from.

Can a time of worship be planned to help find that place of connection to the true gift and freedom of Christmas in our hearts, helping us to be open to all that God did in the first Christmas?

Perhaps if we could get as close to the event as possible, we might find our way back to that joy!

What did that mean for your planning in practical terms?

So let’s start with the time. Let’s come in the dark, like the first Christmas, and leave in the light!  Let’s come under the cloak of darkness, when no one is paying attention, while the rest of the world lies sleeping or is completely self-absorbed with their own agendas.

Then, let’s change the venue. Let’s move into the fireside room and go with as little electricity as possible, an unplugged service so to speak. Let’s snuggle ourselves into a small space, nestling into the stable.  Hey, let’s come in our pajamas, like the shepherds who didn’t worry about work clothes, dirty clothes, or an un-kept appearance. The most important thing was to come! Or come in your very finest, like the wise men, or traveling clothes like Mary and Joseph, or anything in between like the Innkeeper.

We are blessed at Peace Mennonite with a beautiful collection of set pieces that have been built and painted over the years that lend themselves to creating a wonderful environment.  Let’s set up the stable scene and sheep to create a visual environment with many, many lanterns and candles for lighting.  What if we could hear directly from some of the characters of the first Christmas, like Mary—what would she say if she visited today? What about the shepherd or the Innkeeper? They became the first 3 monologues of the first service.

Mary talked about being an in-between, no longer a child, but not yet an adult, and how God works in in-between places and people. The Innkeeper talked about having a story to tell over the gossip of the world.  The shepherd shared about knowing who you are as a child of God. When you lose sight of who you are, let the great shepherd find you and lead you home.

The space was intimate enough to have the musicians also stay with an intimate acoustic sound. Can we connect the Christmas event to communion?  Let’s have Mary use the cradling cloths to lay the communion table, the Innkeeper can bring the bread, and the Shepherds the wine.  Given the intimacy of the service can we include anointing of oil and personal prayer?

Was this planned as a worship time for the whole congregation?

While this was intended as our congregation’s Christmas Day service, it was open to anyone. I really didn’t know if anyone would come, but that really wasn’t my concern. This is where God led and inspired me to, and it was God who would inspire others to come. Jesus had something in mind, and I couldn’t wait to see what!

In our announcements we said, “It’s ok if you don’t think this is for you, but perhaps, if you wake up at 6 am and can’t get back to sleep, consider that perhaps you are being invited somewhere special. Come and let Christ be the first gift of Christmas for you and your family to open!” Following the service we would have a time of fellowship over warm croissants, apple cider, and coffee.

I’m excited to hear the response!

Christmas morning came, and my daughter (10 years old at the time) had to come along and help finish setting up.  We were lighting all the candles, and she suddenly exclaimed,

Look mama! The Bethlehem Star!! Jesus’ star is here!!

I looked up to where she was pointing on the ceiling.  The light of the candles happened to play through the angles of the stable walls to create a beautiful and bright star on the ceiling. This was completely unintentional!  Her young squeals of delight and understanding of God’s gift was a real gift to me!  I was full!

But there was more! They came! Slowly but surely they filtered in, many young ones in pajamas, some dressed up and others simply comfortably dressed. The service started and more seemed to come in until the room was full beyond the chairs we had set up. One family had even brought a bunny with them! Another brought her dog, and someone brought a fighting fish, so we had real live animals. (It’s still my dream to have live pigeons!)

At the end of the service, each participant was given a star ornament as a reminder to keep looking for signs of Christ in every day and share them with others. The benediction concluded:

Go out and share the good news of great joy, for unto you is born this day a Savior for all! Go out in the light of day and tell the world what you have seen and heard!

The participation and responses were wonderful!  Several comments were made about having no intention of coming, but then they just couldn’t sleep.  When I asked my daughter before bedtime prayers that night what her favorite thing of the day was, without hesitation she answered, “The worship service this morning and being with family all day!” The gifts and toys she received didn’t even come up!

While I had only expected it to be a one-time service, it was requested the next year and the next year. This season, the three stories we heard were from Mary, who talked about Jesus coming to live out loud, not in silence;  Joseph who talked about Jesus being a mysterious puzzle gift that takes time and relationship to understand; and about being carved onto the palm of God’s hand. Joseph invited the children forward for his story and gave them some home-made wooden puzzles to try to solve as he spoke. Then a wise-man’s page told her story of wondering who and why you are, and learning that some things are understood only much later. During the communion and anointing time of the service, people were also invited to come and carve their initials or a symbol into the manger.

Will you hold another version of your 7am worship for Christmas 2014?

As for the next Christmas, I don’t know yet. This will be a year of transition with our family moving to Yarrow, but I am always open to where God is leading me. Maybe we’ll hold a service in our barn with real sheep in our grove!! Wouldn’t that be wonderful!

May God bless your journey into 2014. May you take your time with God’s puzzles, trusting that each moment matters, even if you don’t understand it right away. Be courageous in living and loving out loud as Christ loves you!


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3 thoughts on “Under the Cloak of Darkness: Christmas Day, 7am

  1. So excellent! What a brilliant way to help create that great sense of wonder and anticipation about Christmas morning, focused around Christ more so than gifts.

  2. I’m glad to share some of your experience here, Heidi. Your last comment reminds me that a friend from Ontario says that they held Christmas worship in a barn complete with animals — some were concerned that it would be too cold, too smelly, inconvenient, but it turned out to be a wonderful time together celebrating the birth of Jesus.

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