Even if you haven’t felt the need before, 2020 seems like the right year to acknowledge the reality of heartbreak amid the high, glittery expectations of Christmas joy. Many of us need a moment that welcomes our tears of anxiety, outrage and disappointment, even as we encounter the wondrous story of God embodying love in Jesus.
As the ministry where we serve, Olive Branch, began planning for Christmas this year, we explored options for a Blue Christmas or Longest Night event. We looked at Psalms, poetry, hymns, and chants. We considered meditative activities and interactive ones and wondered how they might work online.
After a long discussion we had an extensive list of ideas and resources, but there was still “some assembly required.” We thought to ourselves: “Wow, that was a lot of work. How do other church leaders in established ministries find the time to be creative in the midst of everything else they have going on?” So we decided to offer a workshop to help others get a head start on their own planning.
Some assembly required
We expected a few people might be interested. We never anticipated that 100 people would register for the workshop with 40 more on a waiting list. One thing is clear—we are all feeling the need for space to grieve this year.
Rather than just present different options, we decided to offer an opportunity to experience them. We noticed there are a few distinctions between Blue Christmas and Winter Solstice or Longest Night services and knowing what makes them unique can help a leader think through what their community needs most. So we started here:
- Recognizes that holidays often remind people of loss
- Acknowledges that the joyous celebration of Christmas services can exacerbate feelings of loneliness/isolation
- Makes space for grief, anger, outrage, and sadness.
- Expressions of lament are a welcomed as a means of faithful dialogue with God.
Winter Solstice/longest night
- Marks an earth moment—the longest night of the calendar year
- Names darkness as mystery and invites curiosity
- Reflects on the end of the year and gives space for slowing down
- Encourages naming the gifts that are to be found in the darkness.
One particularly rich opportunity we have when marking Winter Solstice is this idea of celebrating and lifting up the goodness of the dark: addressing the problematic binary that is rife in much of our language and liturgy that suggests: darkness is bad, and light is good.
Winter Solstice as an anti-racist practice
Attributing positive and negative values to the light/dark binary is unhelpful in the ways it keeps us from being curious about the dark. But more than that, it is another way that we, even if unintentionally, perpetuate the extremely harmful idea that white (light) is better than black (darkness). Many BIPOC, including Rev. Lenny Duncan in his book Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US, have articulated this point well:
“Over and over again in our music, liturgies, displayed artwork, and language and word choices, we have reinforced the idea that white is holy and black equals sin. These passive suggestions have created an entire subconscious theology of race. For example, most pastors wear a white alb or surplice while they lead worship—using whiteness to represent baptism, purity, and closeness to the creator. We’ve never stopped to ask why we equate the color white to goodness. Every day we sit in church, we are being subtly fed this narrative about whiteness—a narrative that is at work in all of us consciously or subconsciously. The person who administers the sacraments: clothed in white. The colors of resurrection and ultimate victory: white. The candle you light at the anniversary of your child’s baptism: white. The message is clear, whether we realize it or not. White equals pure. And the inverse is also true: the absence of white—darkness or blackness—equals bad or evil.“
Particularly in the season of Advent, our efforts to name the goodness of the darkness could go a long way. Again, from Lenny Duncan:
“During Advent, we spend an entire season struggling through the darkness looking toward the coming light… We have reduced the Advent season to “from darkness to light,” a theme reinforced by repetition and tradition. And darkness is just another way of saying blackness—another symbol that equates blackness with evil and light (whiteness) with good.”
With these ideas in mind, we turned to a checklist to help give us clarity about what direction we might envision for a service this year (note that some options will be ruled out by necessity this year due to COVID restrictions).
Checklist for clarity
- Consider the Frame
- Blue Christmas
- Winter Solstice or Longest Night
- Consider the Context
- In-person indoor
- In-person outdoor
- Live online
- Produced video
- Consider Elements of Content (choose as many as you wish)
- Readings of Scripture or poetry
- Silence for prayer and meditation
- Spoken prayer
- Candle lighting
- Embodied spiritual practice: breathing, hand movements, stretching, dancing
- Community sharing—speaking and listening to one another
- Preached message
- Holy Communion
- Remembrance of Holy Baptism
- Prayer Stations
- Art stations
- Labyrinth walking
- Consider the Core Purpose of your gathering
- Prayer and meditation
- Reflection or slowing down
- Naming and affirming the goodness of the dark
- Expression of grief in lament
- Holistic healing and pastoral care
- Community connection
Once you have a sense of the direction you wish to go, there are a variety of resources to fill in the blanks. The Psalms are full of prayers for presence, help suffering, longing, and hope. There is poetry that speaks of the darkness in vivid and generous ways, and poems written specifically for Christmas grief, and even pandemic times. There are songs both familiar and new that can help us drop into the present moment and enrich our experience together.
Our list of resources can be found on the Olive Branch Community website, along with a video recording of the Zoom workshop where we offered ideas for how a service might be structured, along with some published resources designed specifically for Blue Christmas or Longest night in 2020.
In our opinion, the highlight of the workshop was participating in a brief worship experience together. It was wonderful to connect with colleagues across North America and beyond and to witness the hard things we are facing. And it was a chance to experiment with different ways of worshiping together online, so that we knew how it felt before we asked our congregations and communities to try it.
The encouragement we wish to leave you with is something we are trying to work on ourselves. As the pandemic continues to disrupt our most treasured modes and means of worship, may we continue to make space for something new. As colleagues, what if we didn’t have to put our best foot forward with each other and instead applauded each other’s bold, but sometimes entirely un-manicured attempts at dipping our toes into a completely different body of water. What if we spent our conference meetings practicing entirely new ideas for online worship rather than sharing what we already know works? This type of investment in our own and each other’s leadership isn’t easy, but could be game-changing.