While we might want to question our inactive “visitors”—the 29%—about what makes this day any different—since the good news of God’s incarnation (the Son taking on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ) and Christ’s overcoming the power of death (Jesus, though dying, being resurrected to new enfleshed life) are proclaimed year-round as fundamental to the Christian faith—the query, I believe, is one we all should ask ourselves. Why am I here for Christmas Eve worship? Regardless of my church attendance beyond this single day/evening, what makes this occasion so special for me to attend it each year? Indeed, such events in the life of the church are central to our identity as Christians; yet, I know for me this has not always been the reason for regularly attending church at Christmas Eve. Growing up, though we attended church most every Sunday, in my mind there was a set routine for Christmas Eve: we spent the day with extended family at my paternal grandparents’ house, in the evening we attended one of three worship services offered at our church, and immediately afterwards we went to my maternal great-grandmother’s house to celebrate with her and my mom’s family. As a young child up until college—having not given a great deal of thought to it, though I understood the reason behind it—attending the holiday worship was in my mind, first and foremost: a family tradition. I knew, each year, we would show up early and cram into a single pew—me, my mom, dad, sister, brother, my grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousins. Later, as I grew deeper in my faith and became more conscientious of how the event of Christ’s birth fit into the story of God’s love for me, attending Christmas Eve worship became less of a “just because” and more of a meaningful engagement with the Holy surrounded by the body of Christ. Since serving the church for the last few years now as a pastor, obviously the occasion has taken on another new facet: leading the order of worship, proclaiming the good news of the event to those present, and presiding over Holy Communion as a visible sign of this grace and love of God given to us in bread and wine. Even in the last couple years, as a parent, I’ve began to look at the occasion of Christmas Eve worship with new consideration—wondering what my son will take from it and how I, as pastor, can help to make it more for him than just “part of dad’s job.”
For many, this occasion for worship is the same as it was for me growing up: a tradition—nothing more, nothing less—hence the reason for the absence of so many throughout the rest of the year. For others, Christmas Eve worship is a holy experience that cannot be replicated beyond its single occurrence each year: the cold weather outside, the warm church filled to the brim, the unique Scripture passages read aloud, the particular selection of music (Away in a Manger, Silent Night, Joy to the World) and the mood it sets, the candles lit in darkness, the feeling that something extraordinary is happening here in this place at this specific time. For some, it is a commitment made and kept in bargain or memory of something else. The list of reasons that people come out of the woodworks and join together for this single worship service is longer, and includes more, than what any of us might imagine. Not that the answer to such questions should be a certain one or perhaps change the outcome--I believe one’s presence in worship (whenever) is more important than why—but being mindful of what brings us to this place (worship) at this particular time (Christmas Eve) helps us to consider what value the occasion has for us and how it can/does shape our life of faith.
In his Small Catechism explanation on the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed, Martin Luther writes: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as [the Spirit] calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith” (BC 355.6f, emphasis my own). Expounding on this confession of faith in his Large Catechism, Luther says: “That is, [the Holy Spirit] first leads us into his holy community, placing us in the church’s lap, where he preaches to us and brings us to Christ” (BC 435.37f). Like a parent bringing their child forward to participate in the Children’s Sermon, the Spirit leads each of us to the place where we come face-to-face with the good news of God’s love for us in the Crucified and Risen Christ. If we follow Luther’s line of thinking, dare I say, no matter what we consider our personal reason for attending worship on Christmas Eve--it is truly by the power of the Holy Spirit, God working in and through us in strange and marvelous ways, that we are each and altogether brought together to join in worship this one joyous night celebrating the birth of the Christ child. What I, for the longest time, misunderstood as tradition, was—and continues to this day to be—actually the Holy Spirit’s calling/leading my family and I to gather along with the rest of the body of Christ in a time of praise and worship to God in thankfulness for the birth of the Savior in Bethlehem. Why are you here for Christmas Eve worship? Because God’s Holy Spirit has brought you here, in this place at this time, to see and hear the “good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10b-11). God has come into our midst, in flesh and blood, as Emmanuel. No matter what the reason, you have been led here by God to witness this love made manifest for you, to receive it, live in it, and share it with the world around you.
Welcome! Come in, and grab a seat. We’re glad to have you here with us.