November 29 is the first Sunday of the new church year, which begins with the season of Advent, the time leading up to Christ’s birth. How different Advent was last year compared to now.
Last year at this time, we gathered for our traditional “Greening of the Church” festivities, hanging wreaths, putting up trees, and setting out nativities, banners, and candles, after which we went to a member’s home to celebrate with food and drink. During December worship, we carried the banners down the aisles, lit the candles on the Advent wreath, and sang carols. We held our annual Deacons Brunch, gathering in the Great Hall of the church to share food and fellowship. Our kids dressed in costume each Sunday, telling the Christmas story in a series of mini-pageants. We held special services for Longest Night and Christmas Eve. We sat closely together in the pews, shared food, sang hymns, shook hands, hugged, and laughed, blissfully unaware that these would soon be things of the past.
A year later, the sanctuary sits empty on Sunday mornings while we worship together in front of our computer screens in our homes, connected through Facebook Live (and the Holy Spirit). The huge trees and church decorations will stay in their storage boxes. Instead, the pastor will light the candles on the Advent wreath each Sunday on livestreamed worship. We will put together a “virtual Christmas pageant,” using pictures and photos contributed by members and friends. Our Longest Night Service, which is needed more than ever this year, will be livestreamed from the sanctuary on December 21, still proclaiming the “light which shines in the darkness,” but in a new way. We are distributing candles, Christmas hymnals, devotionals, and small gifts to our members so they can worship from home. Rather than seeing hundreds of handheld candles flickering in a darkened sanctuary on Christmas Eve, we will light our candles at home, connected online as we celebrate Christ’s birth separately, and yet at the same time, together.
Part of me feels saddened by these differences, but a part of me rejoices too. Of course, I miss my church family and the traditions which have been a part of my life for so many years. But something good is growing out of these changes too. We are learning new ways to be the church of God. We are telling the “old, old story” in fresh new ways. We’re learning not only what we miss, but also what we don’t.
For instance, one of the amazing things we have found since being “forced” to worship online is that it has opened up a whole new community of people beyond our walls. Our worshiping community includes not only our “regulars,” but also friends and family of members, shut-ins, former members who’ve moved or drifted away, people from out of state, and community folks who never worshiped with us inside our building but who do so regularly now. Online worship is intimate, lively, collegial, and participative. Many prefer it to the “old way.” Even after we return to the sanctuary, we will continue to worship online, incorporating in-person and online community at the same time, and adding some of the spontaneity and intimacy that we’ve come to enjoy.
Churches talk about change a lot. Actually making change happen is harder. Churches are notoriously slow to break out of old patterns. Although 2020 has been hard, it has also given us a gift. We have been forced to do things differently, to try new ways of connecting with others, to take chances, to move forward with hope, and to see that the church exists (in fact thrives) beyond our walls. For that, we are grateful.
In this time of Advent, we hear again the story of Mary and Joseph receiving unexpected and alarming news that they would give birth to a son who would change the world. They were confused, afraid, and unprepared for what was being asked of them. They traveled the dark and dangerous road to Bethlehem, not knowing where they would lay their heads and not knowing what the future held. And yet they trusted that God was with them. As 2020 comes to a close, with all its unpredictability, pain, and hardship, we begin to live into the changed world before us, and we remember and rejoice that God will be with us too.