After the endless rounds of baking, shopping, wrapping and celebrating, Christmas Eve services at local churches offer a time for reflection on the birth of Jesus, seen by Christians worldwide as the meaning behind the season, at worship gatherings.
For the churches, these services represent the culmination of sometimes months of preparation as well as an opportunity to share their message of faith with those who may step into their buildings only occasionally.
Beginning the fourth Sunday before Christmas, Advent marks a time of preparation for churches.
“Just like Lent, Advent is a penitential season,” said Rev. Adam Kradel, rector of St. John’s Evangelical Church on the Square in Carlisle.
Services during the season feature special readings focused on those who came ahead of Jesus, such as John the Baptist and Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Pastor Wayne Good of Newville First Church of God, 475 Shippensburg Road, said the season at the church begins with a Hanging of the Greens service on the first Sunday of Advent.
“We do a lot of decorating to make the sanctuary look inviting, with lots of lights and Christmas trees, and then over all that focuses on the manger and the cross,” he said.
Planning for Advent and Christmas starts while most people are squeezing in a final summer vacation or taking in early season football games.
Dave Perry, worship arts pastor at Grantham Brethren in Christ, said he met with artist Geoff Isley this summer to brainstorm about an art project for Advent. They came up with the idea of making stained glass windows using donated glass pieced “shard by shard” into mosaic patterns by members of the congregation, Perry said.
After two months of work, the stained glass was installed in front of donated LED lights on a wood frame designed and built by church member Art Bert.
Once in place, the panels inspired Pastor David Flowers to center his sermon series for Advent on the theme of light, titling the series “Patterns of Light.” Drawing on the Advent theme of anticipation, the team purposely waited until the final week of Advent to add two more panels to the display depicting the Nativity.
“Christmas, then, is the next part of the story. We celebrate the arrival of Christ, and we remember that Christ will come again,” Perry said.
Every so often, the calendar throws a wrench into the planning for Christmas services. Last year, churches made decisions about holding Sunday morning services on Christmas Day. Having Christmas Eve on a Sunday this year presents a different range of options and challenges.
As a church that focuses on the liturgical calendar, decorations at St. John’s are not put up until Christmas. Because Christmas Eve is on a Sunday, the final Sunday of Advent and the start of Christmas fall on the same day. In the morning, the church will still be decorated for Advent, but that will change by the time people arrive for the Christmas Eve service later that day.
“As soon as I dismiss, our flower guild will go into high gear and get that decorated so that we’re all set for the 4 p.m. Christmas Eve service,” Kradel said.
That service has a special emphasis on youth, and the traditional midnight service at St. John’s starts at 10 p.m. with preludes and Christmas carols, followed at 10:30 p.m. by the midnight mass.
“By the time we leave the church, it will be Christmas,” Kradel said.
Like St. John’s, Newville First Church of God will hold its regular services in the morning and add a Christmas Eve service in the evening.
It’s been a relatively newer tradition for the church to hold its choir cantata on Christmas Eve as they have done for at least the last five or six years, Good said. This year’s service will begin at 7 p.m. and feature the cantata, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and candlelighting.
Regularly scheduled services at 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. will have a Christmas theme as well with a variety of readings, poetry, Scripture and special music.
Normal services will be held at Grantham BIC in the morning, and the traditional Christmas Eve service with candlelight will be held at 6:30 p.m.
Other churches, however, have chosen to alter their schedules to allow families more time to be together for the holiday.
Christ Community Church decided to hold only a morning service that will blend elements of the regular worship service with traditions from its usual Christmas Eve candlelight service, Community Life Pastor Tim Spirk said.
As a result, the pastor’s sermon will be its normal length rather than the 5-10 minute message that is typical for Christmas Eve. On the other hand, there will be more special music than might normally be seen in a Sunday morning service with the preschool handbell choir performing and the elementary choir singing alongside video testimonies, dramatic readings and other special music. The service will end as the church prays and sings together as candles are lit.
“I think it’s the most beautiful thing in the world when all the lights are out and the whole room is lit up with candles,” Spirk said.
Given that it’s a new concept, Spirk said the church has to guess how many will attend, which affects everything from how many candles to have on hand for the candle lighting portion of the service to the number of bulletins printed to guide attendees through the service.
“We really cherish being together here as a church body, but we cherish people’s family, too. That’s why we didn’t want to do double duty,” Spirk said.
Bethel AME Church, 131 E. Pomfret St., Carlisle, however, has not traditionally held Christmas Eve services. This year, Rev. Marilyn Hubbard said they will have a shorter service of praise, prayer and anticipation at 10:30 a.m. as the church normally does on a Sunday morning, but the service will be a little more casual than usual.
“It will be an abbreviated service to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and have a moment where we thank God,” she said.
Welcoming the stranger
Traditionally, churches have seen more visitors at Christmas and Easter, but pastors say that tradition is fading.
“We do have those that come on Christmas and Easter. That’s less so than in previous decades. As churches have had fewer overall members, those that come tend to come regularly,” Kradel said.
Christ Community Church has also seen a decrease in Christmas and Easter visitors, and many of those who would be considered a visitor at such services are family members of congregation members who are visiting for the holiday, Spirk said.
Even so, the churches prepare for potential visitors, and invite them to come.
“The sights and sounds of the Christmas season can remind people of the joy of being a child of God, which should motivate them to worship God with other people,” Kradel said.
Hubbard said Bethel’s doors are open, and that the congregation understands that for some it would be like “a stranger going into a foreign land” so they make sure that newcomers have materials that help guide them through the order of worship or a a member of the congregation to help them along.
“It’s a couple of things for us. It’s an opportunity to share hope and share the heart of Jesus with people you may never have the opportunity to reach,” Spirk said.
Meaning of the season
Even with concerns about calendars and visitors, the importance of the season to the faith remains central in the minds of the pastors who often incorporate elements and themes around the coming of Christ to the Advent messages as well as the Christmas Eve message.
Krabel, for example, said he wrote his Christmas sermon in October and has been tweaking it ever since.
Hubbard said the season is about more than the giving and kindness that attempts to counterbalance commercialization of the holiday. It’s also about the peace and hope that is found wrapped in the manger, and the belief that Jesus “grows up beyond the baby to be the conquering king.”
Not only does Hubbard keep the message in front of the congregation through Advent, but she also encourages them to carry it with them every day.
“We are tasked with being each other’s support, each other’s help, each other’s shoulder to cry on should it come to that,” she said.
That sentiment is also carried into the season at Christ Community Church, which encourages its members to offer hope and encouragement to those who are in difficult situations and, if they are in a tough spot, they can be the person that brings hope, offers steadiness and brings laughter and joy.
“We know that the holidays are difficult for many people, including Christians. We take time to pray with people that are struggling. We pray for people who are going home to difficult family situations,” Spirk said.
Good said he puts a lot of emphasis into the Christmas season with the Advent series and his messages because of the importance of the birth of Christ to the faith. However, he said, Christmas without Easter has no significance.
“They tie together, and we probably put a lot more emphasis on Christmas, but Easter is much more important,” he said.