A Little White Church Christmas
As we approach Christmas Eve, hear the stories of God incarnate working in and among the people of the little white church nestled in a village in Upstate New York. These stories of “Emmanuel”—God with us—were gathered during Donna Frischknecht’s time serving as minister of a historic white clapboard church right on the border of Vermont, from 2007-2013.
I spoke the last word of my Christmas Eve sermon and as I did I secretly breathed a sigh of relief. No matter how long one has been at his or her craft—Christmas Eve worship always brings a bit of anxiety.There’s the anxiety of trying to tell the old familiar story in a fresh, new way.
(Reminder to self: just let God’s Word speak, don’t get cute or fancy. Just be real.)
Then there is the anxiety of what if this would the night in which for the first time ever I blank out up there and forget everything. That’s an anxiety leftover from seminary days.
(Reminder to self: it has yet to happen and so it probably will never happen.)
Then there’s the anxiety of new faces staring back at you from the pews, many of whom probably have no interest in what the church offers beyond Christmas Eve. I have come to realize those who find themselves gathered in a church on that holy night are often gathered out of a sense of tradition, which is not bad at all.
(Reminder to self: the Holy Spirit can work—and does reach hearts—with those simply seeking tradition.)
My task is not to convert people on Christmas Eve. My task is to be as faithful as I can in the telling God’s story of salvation and let my own knowledge of that salvation and grace, speak through me.
Still I have a healthy awareness as to where the Christmas Eve sermon ranks in importance for those gathered to worship.
(Note to self: keep Christmas Eve sermon on the shorter side.)
I would say the sermon is probably at No. 3, right behind wanting to hear the old familiar songs of Christmases past sung once again.
What’s the No. 1 reason many come to church on Christmas Eve?
They come for that incredibly moving moment when the lights go out in the sanctuary. Then, with only the radiant beams shining from hundreds of individual candles, “Silent Night” is softly sung by young and old, believer and doubter, broken and whole, joyful and sorrowful, sinner and saint.
And nowhere more was this beloved tradition so beautifully executed than at the little white church.
It was there that I, a new pastor, was introduced to a new tradition I had never experienced before.
As I was planning my first Christmas Eve, I was told by the faithful and hardworking Worship Committee that while I basically had free reign to do whatever new thing I wanted to do that night, I was not to change how they did the candles during “Silent Night.”
“First we have communion,” said one woman in a way that told me she was used to being in charge. “We have two chalices, one for grape juice and one for wine.”
“We have to remember to put a red bow on the wine chalice so that people know which cup has the alcohol and which one doesn’t,” another committee member chimed in.
(Note to self: remember to announce that on Christmas Eve as well as print the red-bow chalice information in the worship bulletin.)
“Okay,” I said, agreeing with everything so far.
“And then we light our candles from the Christ candle and we begin making a circle all around the sanctuary,” the woman with the drill sergeant voice continued.
(Note to you the reader: This woman with the gruff voice turned out to be one of the most blessed angels in my ministry while at the little white church. I always smile whenever I think of her.)
“You don’t go back to your pews?” I asked, trying to envision the circle being made as folks come up for communion, while others took their lighted candles up the aisles of a church made out of timber some 200-plus years old. I was fond of that church and really didn’t want to see any fires on Christmas Eve.
“Yes,” she said in a way that told me I shouldn’t have questioned it.
“We’ve always done it this way, pastor,” yet another committee member added.
“But what about safety issues?” I asked ever so gently.
“You just have be careful with your candle,” was the reply.
“What about those who have trouble walking and have to remain seated in the pew? We can’t leave them out of the candle lighting?” I asked, thinking of my handicapped brother who would visiting that Christmas Eve and who definitely would be that person forgotten in this beautiful, beloved tradition.
“No problem. Whoever has to remain seated, will stay seated. An elder will light their candle and stay with them as sort of an extension of the circle,” was the reply back.
“Oh, okay. That’s a wonderful solution,” I said, still not certain as to how this was all going to play out on Christmas Eve.
And so I spoke the last word of my Christmas Eve sermon and as I did I secretly breathed a sigh of relief. That part was done. Now, though, there was the angst of the singing of “Silent Night” and the circle of light that would be made in the sanctuary.
Now more than ever I had to trust God.
(Note to self: I am just an instrument. Let God work on this holy night.)
And work He did.
Young and old, believer and doubter, broken and whole, joyful and sorrowful, sinner and saint, all came up to break the bread, then dip in either of the two chalices (the one with the red bow was quite popular), and then light their candle.
Back up the side aisles they began to go. I really couldn’t pay much attention to the formation of the circle, as I was busy administering the sacrament. By the time all were served the bread and the cup, it was time for me to light my candle and say a prayer before the singing of “Silent Night” began.
I looked up and out at the sanctuary for the first time. I couldn’t speak. My throat choked up with emotion and I had to fight the tears.
Before my eyes was an unbroken circle of pure light, with faces all beaming, especially the faces from those on the Worship Committee, who looked at me as if to say, “Isn’t this beautiful? See, you had nothing to worry about, pastor.”
All come for this Christmas Eve moment in which something more powerful than tradition happens—the light of Christ, if only throughout the four or five stanzas of “Silent Night”, is seen by eyes often blind to it.
The smile from a teen as God whispers blessed assurances that life will get better.
The tear coming from the elderly woman as God’s arms wrap around her when her husband’s arms can no longer hug her.
The child, who is fighting his mom to hold his own candle, is finally given the light. He quiets down and holds the light with reverence and awe, as God’s Spirit lights up the world before him.
My brother, seated in the pew, but not alone. The light of Christ shining forth on him in the way of the candle of a church member who chose to stand by him.
Each person, even if it is just for the four or five stanzas in which “Silent Night” is sung, can see the Christ light in their lives.
The little white church’s beloved tradition had become mine. And every year I couldn’t wait to see the circle of light in that historic sanctuary, a reminder of God’s never-ending love upon Christ’s church and its people.
You did it again, Donna! My computer screen is all blurry. A Most Blessed Christmas to you and PJ, your mother and dad and your brother, too.
And a most blessed Christmas to you, Lois!!!