How to approach a holiday that both draws and depresses us?

By the time you are reading this column, I’ll be preparing for my church’s annual Christmas Eve services. An anonymous poet wrote that people come in such numbers to catch “a whiff of incense” (even though we Presbyterians don’t use much of the stuff) and a “hint of hope”.

On Christmas Eve we find our way past the frenzy of the season with its shopping, cooking, entertaining and decorating, to the glow of candlelight and the warmth of carols, to meet an appointment with God. All too aware of the complexities and troubles of the real world, with its wars and rumors of war, and all the bad news in the papers, we come to catch glimpses of a world that is even more real — a world lit up by a light that came into the darkness.

A few years ago the New York Times carried an editorial titled “Hope For the Seasonally Challenged”. It described well what it means to be “seasonally challenged”: coping with the way Madison Avenue portrays Christmas as a perfect little world in which everybody in the family loves each other and says so; where everyone is still happily married, and obedient children lovingly gather around dear old Dad to hear Christmas stories on Christmas Eve. Christmas carols sing of perfect white Christmases, where everybody gets exactly what they want for Christmas. There are no fears lurking in the dark corners, and everybody’s expectations are met.

The seasonally challenged are those who know that their lives are not like that, and they are all too aware of the chasm between the real and the ideal. The seasonally challenged read all the magazine articles on seasonal depression, and they know exactly what they are describing.

Can you see why Christmas Eve is one of the greatest challenges preachers face?

Another article in the New York Times interviewed preachers all over the country about Christmas Eve. The tone of the questions was interesting — something like, “Don’t you find it difficult? All those people you never see any other time, trooping in with liquor on their breath from the Christmas party they just came from, going through the motions in a once-a-year ritual?”

The assumption was that Christmas Eve must be terribly frustrating for preachers, who all the while resent the fact that the Sunday after Christmas, after all the falderal, will inevitably be one of the lowest attendance Sundays of the year.

Frankly, I have never felt that way, because I believe I see something else happening here.

For one thing, whatever the reason people come out in such numbers on Christmas Eve, they come. For me, it is still heart-warming to see people jostling for places in church instead of a sporting event or a rock concert.

For another thing, I cannot but believe that we come not merely out of habit or convention, but because of something deep within us that leads us to make an appointment with God. There is something about Christmas that brings out the deepest yearnings of our hearts: perhaps a whiff of incense and a hint of hope.

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