Blue Christmas? Or Longest Night Communion?
By Taylor Burton-Edwards
Over the past ten years, it seems that "Blue Christmas" services have been increasing in number and gaining in popularity as part of the round of Advent/Christmas schedules of Christian congregations in the United States.
Often scheduled on or around December 21 to correspond with "Longest Night," the beginning of the winter solstice and so the darkest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere, Blue Christmas services offer a contemplative respite from cultural and perhaps even ecclesial expectations of a "happy Christmastime." Blue Christmas services also give space for communal rituals of grieving and mutual support, especially for those who have experienced significant loss or are dealing with difficult situations in their lives.
All of this is valuable and good.
But is "Blue Christmas" the best way to frame it for Christian congregations? And is a separate service focusing on grief and loss the best we have to offer?
I raise the question because many of the framers of the "Blue Christmas" idea seem to propose that December in general and Christmas in particular (or Christmastime in the wider culture) is indeed focused exclusively on happiness and joy and does not deal much, if at all, with the realities of pain, suffering and loss in our lives.
Perhaps in congregations or traditions that do not celebrate Advent or use the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during these weeks, that would be true.
But for those who do, quite the reverse may be the case.
Consider the gospel readings for this year, 2012. On December 2, we heard Jesus warning about cataclysms to come and calling his disciples to pray for strength to avoid the temptation to anesthetize themselves against the pain, but rather to stand faithfully before the world in the midst of it. On December 9, we hear of the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist, who calls for repentance, and sing Zechariah's song which acknowledges the painful realities from which we cry out to God for deliverance. On December 16, we continue the story of John the Baptist and hear perhaps some of his sharpest preaching prophesying a final destruction of and release from the corruption and death that surrounds us on every side. And on December 23, we sing Mary's song, in which she and generations of Christians pour out our hope in the One who "puts down the mighty from their seats and exalts the lowly."
This same pattern of readings for the four weeks-- end of the world, John the Baptist, and the revolutionary and challenging path of Mary-- happens every year of the three year cycle, though using different readings to embody it.
Given the nature of these readings I wonder whether an additional "Blue Christmas" service in our Advent schedules is necessary, and in some senses, even helpful.
Specifically I wonder...
- How do you use these readings to focus on the realities of grief, suffering, and loss week by week in worship and other ministries of the congregation?
- Is worship in December where you more "programmed" by the "media" version of December as "the most wonderful time of the year" than the actual Christian observances of Advent and Christmas? Might that be a reason you may actually need to consider a separate service that does address issues of suffering, grief and loss in this season? And if so, might you consider re-orienting December to the Advent texts instead going forward?
- Which is better for congregations and for people attending them seeking solace at this time of the year? Is it greater solace for us all to rehearse and confess our needs as part of our worship as a community together, perhaps with special attention to those suffering in our prayers and in other acts of worship week by week, or to create a separate service primarily intended for those who experience that suffering? (Before you answer this, go talk with those who are suffering first, and ask them! Are they asking for "special attention" or are you providing it because you think they "need" it?)
- What approach to the questions of suffering, grief and loss in this season bests helps your congregation function as those who "surround them with a community of love and forgiveness" as we promise at every service of the baptismal covenant?
I do not propose any one right answer to these questions. I simply raise them for you to wrestle with in your particular context.
If you do decide to offer a service on Longest Night, let me suggest you consider offering it as an Advent evening service of Word and Table, fully integral to the work of the whole church during this season. Two of the three readings of the Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings for December 21 this year are particularly appropriate, both for the themes of Advent at that point, and for those who are suffering. Psalm 80:1-7 refers to the bread of tears and asks, twice, for God to restore us. Hebrews 10:32-39 encourages Christians to support one another and be supported by the Spirit in the midst of their suffering, remembering who we are, persons of faith who are being saved even in such times as this.
A new resource for Longest Night based on these texts is now posted on the Discipleship Ministries website, along with links to our other Longest Night/Blue Christmas resources. Thanks to Robb McCoy for this newest addition!