Why Evening Services?
The church has for centuries celebrated services on the eve of holy days because the traditional Christian liturgical day starts at sunset. Examples include the Eve of Epiphany, the Easter Vigil, and All Hallow's Eve (Halloween or Eve of All Saints). Since Christian tradition has held that Jesus was born at night (Luke 2:6-8), it is especially appropriate, and poignant, to gather for Christmas worship on the eve of Christmas Day. Many churches around the world still hold midnight Mass, or at least one service close to midnight, to commemorate both the lateness of Christ's birth as well as the birth of the new day at midnight.
Our own congregation accommodates this pattern by offering three different services on Christmas Eve. We offer a 6 p.m. Children's Worship that is early in the evening, near dusk, and so at the end (beginning) of the day. This service is a service of word, carols, poems, special music, a time for meditation on the central text for Christmas, Luke 2. It is especially designed to be developmentally appropriate for children and their families.
Then, because our sanctuary cannot actually hold the number of people who would attend one Christmas Eve Mass, we offer two, one at 7:30 p.m. and one at 9:30 p.m. These two services are mostly identical, a traditional liturgy of Word & Communion, that then include some additional aspects appropriate for a high festival eve service. We read the proclamation of the birth of Christ at the beginning of the liturgy. We sing as many Christmas carols as possible during the service. We conclude the service with a candlelight vigil and night prayer. As we sing Silent Night, all those gathered light vigil candles that have been distributed during the service. As the sanctuary is darkened, the candles are lit, and soon the light of the hundreds of candles fills the space, invoking the light of Christ coming into the world.
This year, we will at the conclusion of these services pray the traditional night prayer:
"Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen."
It will be my goal as a preacher to help us meditate especially on the news the angels share, and what it means to be messengers of this good news. It is the goal of all our worship leaders to evoke both the solemnity and joy that accompanies the celebration of the incarnation of Christ.
Different Lessons/The Whole Christmas Story
I offer separate lessons and sermon for the 7:30 and 9:30 services. There are actually three lectionary texts on offer for the series of Christmas Eve/Day services. These differ somewhat between denominational traditions. For examples, see Textweek.
Essentially, this will mean the sermon for the first service will focus on the early verses of Luke 2, and the second service will focus on the latter verses of the chapter. In anticipate this year especially meditating on the psalms selected for these services (Psalm 96 and Psalm 97) both of which have deep resonances with the gospel lessons for Christmas Eve.
Sunday morning, we invite families to read John 1:1-14 and pray Psalm 98 as part of their morning Christmas day household prayers.
The overriding memory I have each time I hear Luke 2:1-20 read—and this is one of those memories that is so evocative and strong that I can smell it, taste it, touch it, feel it, and hear it—is the memory of reading this text out loud each year at my grandparents house on our farm in eastern Iowa. Their sitting room had been converted into the Christmas room. My grandmother beautifully decorated a real tree each year that sat in the front window, visible and bright for all those who drove past on the snow-encrusted highway. Inside, the room was warm and carpeted. Grandma played piano, and accompanied us in song as we sang carols. Finally, after too long of a wait to open all of those temptingly wrapped gifts, it was the tradition in our family for one cousin each year to read the gospel. I trembled with anticipation the years in which I read it out loud, and proudly listened on when my younger cousins were able to read it for the first time.
I tell this story not because it is particularly unique, or because you need to know that much about one family story in order to understand the Christmas narrative, but because this is how so many of those in worship will contextualize readings from the gospel during the season of Christmas. They are not simply lectionary texts read in worship. They are warm, relational, almost edible texts that evoke memories and feelings beyond anything we can say or do in our worship leadership or preaching. Christmas, like weddings and funerals, is one of those services of Christian worship where what we already bring to the service can in many ways over-ride what we hear or sing there. So much more is being evoked in these days by the texts that are read than can be encompassed in what we preach, but mindfulness of that fact shapes our pacing and approach. The wisest thing we try to do is go slowly, deliberately, prayerfully, letting hearers and worshippers have as much space for their feelings and memories as for our words or ritual actions.
And overall, we try to let the service evoke what we sing every Sunday in Christian worship, the Gloria:
Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.
Lord, God heavenly King, Almighty God and Father,
We worship you, we give you thanks,
We praise you for your glory.
Lord God, Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world,
Have mercy on us.
You are seated at the right hand of the Father—receive our prayer!
For you alone are the holy One, you alone are the Lord,
You alone are the most high, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit,
In the Glory of God the Father, Amen.
Ideas for Christmas morning
Many families are on the road visiting family Christmas Day. Others cozy in at home and observe long-standing traditions. Still others attend Eucharist. Still others engage in service, visiting those who would otherwise be alone, lacking shelter, or hungry on Christmas day.
I'd love, as conclusion for this meditation, to hear from readers how they observe Christmas Day. Perhaps we can learn from each other.