NOTE: With the Fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve falling on the same day, this year presents unique worship planning challenges and opportunities. You will find materials for both worship services on this page. Each section will begin with resources for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, followed by resources for Christmas Eve. We have also compiled the Christmas Eve worship resources in their own article. We hope these resources inspire and assist you as we begin the day at the close of Advent and end the day by celebrating the birth of Jesus, our wondrous Light!
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B
I like to call the last Sunday of Advent “Mary Sunday.” After years of going all out on Gaudete Sunday, it felt like Advent 4 was this lull in energy between Advent 3 and Christmas Eve, and it broke my heart because two out of the three years in the Lectionary (Year B and Year C) list the Annunciation and the Magnificat in Luke 1 as the Gospel and Psalm reading, respectively. And in all three years, the lectionary for Advent 4 ushers us into the final chapter of waiting—gestation. And while nine months feels like a lifetime for anyone who has ever been pregnant, forty weeks is just a drop in the bucket compared to the centuries between the Old Testament prophecies of a Messiah and the birth of Jesus. Even the Advent wreath gives us this sense of almost-fulfillment. What began as a wreath with one lone, lit candle is now a circle of light, almost complete but not quite.
Of course, this particular Mary Sunday comes with the additional struggle of being the same day as Christmas Eve. Do you have service in person/hybrid twice (or more) today? Do you have an online morning service and an in-person/hybrid evening service(s)? Do you combine Advent 4 and Christmas Eve into one service? Honestly, there is no one right answer for every context. Who your people are, how many people are going out of town versus welcoming guests to their homes, the logistics of having a morning and evening service, the weather…there are many factors to weigh. That said, we decided to offer specific resourcing for those who would like to have an online service in the morning and an in-person/hybrid service in the evening. That way, congregants can worship from home in the morning as they finish their Christmas preparations while still joining together in the evening for the Christmas Eve service. Thus, under Liturgical Resources, you will find our usual worship materials as well as a guide for a pre-recorded online-only Advent 4 worship service.
Whether you choose to have an in-person, online, or hybrid worship service, consider how you will lean into the transformative love that pervades the texts for this day. Like the previous three weeks, Advent 4 invites us to shake up our understandings of love, to dig in on this transformative love that we receive and give and wait for. What does this love do in us? How will we know it is here?
Perhaps today is a day for testimony, for telling the story of how God’s love has transformed a life, a family, a neighborhood. Or maybe the testimony is not about transformation that has already happened, but transformation in process, the challenge of following God’s love wherever it takes us. I can think of no better way to follow Mary’s example than to tell the story of saying yes to God and what it means to wait as that yes comes to fruition.
Today is also certainly a day for song. I know you may have sung your hearts out last week, but Mary Sunday just isn’t complete without singing the Magnificat, or, for that matter, saying or moving or meditating on this beautiful hymn of transformative love that Mary sings to Elizabeth. And yes, I said moving. Wouldn’t it be beautiful to have our kids or kids-at-heart lead us in creating motions for some or all of Luke 1:47-55? To get this song that reminds us of God’s love deep in our bones? So, if possible, don’t miss out on singing the Magnificat. There are several hymns based on Mary’s song available, including “My Soul Gives Glory to My God” (United Methodist Hymnal, 198), “Tell Out, My Soul” (United Methodist Hymnal, 200), “Canticle of the Turning” (https://hymnary.org/text/my_soul_cries_out_with_a_joyful_shout), and “My Soul Proclaims with Wonder” (https://hymnary.org/hymn/VT2020/222).
Knowing this Sunday may feel particularly full and hurried for worship leaders and congregants, let this time of worship, no matter how long or short, be set apart for this final stage of preparation. Make it simple, make it genuine, proclaim the truth about the love of God growing in Mary’s womb and living in our hearts today. This is, ultimately, everything we need as we transition from the end of Advent in the morning to welcoming the Christ child in the evening.
Christmas Eve, Year B
Have you noticed the references to light and darkness throughout this series? In the scriptures, certainly, but also in the planning and preaching notes, the prayers, even the songs? Does the play of light and dark bother you, or is it so customary you don’t notice any more? Until a few years ago, I bought the whole “dark is bad, light is good” narrative hook, line, and sinker. And then, one day, I was reading an article that talked about how necessary darkness is for human health. We actually need darkness to regulate our physical, emotional, and mental health. Wild, I know. And then, I started thinking about how some of my favorite moments in worship happen in the dark. Especially Christmas Eve.
Throughout this series, we have dug deep on shocking hope, just peace, fierce joy, and transformative love to help us learn how to wait. Wait through Advent, yes, but also wait beyond Advent, beyond the birth of Jesus, beyond the Epiphany. We are still waiting for the complete fulfillment of God’s kin-dom. But tonight, we celebrate the beginning and the end of the fulfillment we wait for—Christ’s birth. The arrival of our wondrous Light.
You certainly have your traditions for Christmas Eve in your community, and this is a time to joyfully live into them. Light the final candle on the Advent wreath. Tell the story of Christ’s birth. Act it out, even! Make sure every age group from youngest to oldest hears the story in a way that is meaningful to them. Sing the carols your congregation holds dear lustily and with a good courage. (Thank you, John Wesley.)
As you go about your community’s traditions, don’t forget to turn off the lights. No, seriously. We need the darkness to notice the light. And yes, we can talk about how darkness is used as a metaphor for sin and how the history of that metaphor has been harmful to people of diverse races, ethnicities, and abilities. But that’s not quite what I’m getting at. Turning off the lights, sitting in darkness together, can settle and refocus our attention. Outside the walls of the church, we have been so busy turning up the brightness of the lights, the volume of the music, and the pace of our lives in this season that we need help making room to welcome the Christ child. We need help noticing the birth of the Light.
So, turn off the lights and light some candles. Balance joyful carols with gentle lullabies. Marry warm fellowship with space for prayer. Help your people embrace the complex tapestry of our lives that we bring with us to the manger. Give permission for the hard but natural emotions that we often identify as “darkness” to have a place alongside the merriment and joy to inhabit the space. The Light that is born this night is a Light that stays with us in all things, in all places, and in all circumstances. Turn off the lights, and welcome our wondrous Light, God with us.
The United Methodist Hymnal, (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), vii.
Dr. Lisa Hancock, Director of Worship Arts Ministries, served as an organist and music minister in United Methodist congregations in the Northwest Texas and North Texas Annual Conferences, as well as the New Day Amani/Upendo house churches in Dallas. After receiving her Master of Sacred Music and Master of Theological Studies from Perkins School of Theology, Lisa earned her PhD in Religious Studies from Southern Methodist University wherein she researched and wrote on the doctrine of Christ, disability, and atonement.