I have never felt more attuned with my pastoral calling than when I’m leading Blue Christmas services.
Blue Christmas services are often contemplative services held the week before Christmas to honor the complexity of emotion and experience surrounding the holidays. Many of us have experienced loss, grief, depression, anxiety, and other stresses that prevent us from feeling what we think we’re “supposed” to feel. In other words, people aren’t always feeling the Christmas Spirit, for many reasons.
So Blue Christmas gathers these folks in, assuring them that they are not alone, and that there is room in the community for them and their complex feelings. This is the deepest honor and privilege of pastoral work. I am able to be with people where they are, and we experience church and community together as it should be—not in faked niceness, but in authentic brokenness.
What I’m learning, though, in the preparation and leading of Blue Christmas services, is that attuning oneself to the pain and struggle of life brings us closer to the story of the Christ Child who was born to bring us hope amidst it all.
When Mary learned of the coming baby, she proclaimed,
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
God has helped the servant Israel,
in remembrance of God’s mercy,
according to the promise God made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
This song boasts of a God who will interrupt a world of pain, injustice, and greed, and it’s how Luke starts the story of Jesus’s birth. (So to answer the hymnodist’s question: yes, Mary seemed to know.) And so we see in this instance, from the beginning, the joy mixes with the pain. We do not have one without the other.
Later in the story, King Herod, threatened by the worship of this new child that would flip the world order upside down, orders the mass murder of infants under the age of two to try to make sure Jesus is killed before he orchestrates revolution.
That’s a part of the story we skip in the play. All of the dead babies.
A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.
This Christmas, the week after the death of seven-year-old refugee Jakelin Caal Maquin, the heavy reality of the Christmas story seems closer than ever. In our own context, I am a citizen of the land of King Herod, and I watch in horror as we see time and time again how far we fall from creating a world that is safe and just for all.
And in this moment, when the more fluffy Christmas songs seem trite, I am reminded that this is the world that God keeps breaking into. That this is why we have Christmas. That Jesus is only the Reason for the Season in the sense that God will bring down the powerful from their thrones, lifting up the lowly. And I don’t think I’m the lowly in this case. In fact, I’m a bit nervous that more often than not, I’m among the rich that will be sent away empty while the hungry are fed. God will keep breaking into our world, Emmanuel, God with us… and in the meantime, I’m going to keep preparing my heart and aligning my life in a way that might allow me to recognize the in-breaking of God when it happens.
At the very same time I’m thankful for my pastoral calling during the lowest of moments spoken to by Blue Christmas, I also feel convicted by my pastoral calling. We have to do better. We have to be better.
I’m not in danger of missing the Christmas Spirit because I ran out of time to make cookies.
I’m in danger of missing the Christmas Spirit because I’m so far removed from the places we’re most likely to find Jesus this Christmas.
Creating God, please draw me nearer to your heart this Christmas. Grant me the discernment to know which parts of Christmas to lean into and which parts of Christmas to let pass by me. Forgive me for the times I’ve confused the two. May I prepare my heart to recognize when you break into our world yet again. Amen.
Note: This is not my actual Blue Christmas sermon. If you want to check that out, you can listen to it here.