Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Holy Obligation

My first call was to a little parish on the east side of the Catskill Mountains.  On Sunday morning we had 150 on a decent Sunday.  But come Christmas Eve and the Church would be filled to capacity for two services.  The folks who could not get themselves into Church during most of the rest of year, understood that Christmas was a day of holy obligation and they were there in force on Christmas Eve.  As much as I was frustrated by their mostly occasional attendance the rest of the year, I was heartened to see that Christmas was deeply embedded in their hearts and lives.  It was as if there was at least a foothold for Jesus and it was fitting enough that this foothold was at Christmas -- the beginning of the story.

I do not sense as much the feeling of holy obligation.  In fact, even "religious" folks are more likely than not to describe Christmas in terms of family celebration, general love and good will, and the particular traditions of their own manner of observing the day.  In fact, attendance by those not so regular on Christmas has, indeed, fallen off.  It is no longer part of the culture of Christmas to gather in Church.

It strikes me odd because even though no one in my family was or is a church worker, Church was always the most central part and deepest of my childhood memories of Christmas.  We would gather for the children's Christmas program on Christmas Eve and then the Divine Service to follow.  On our way out the usher would hand us a brown paper bag in which was the shiniest red apple known to man, some chocolates, some hard candy, and a few peanuts in the shell.  It was a great treat to which we looked forward for the entire year.

Dad was inevitably the last one to leave.  We would sit in the cold car waiting for him to come, shivering in the icy blast of winter, our breath seen even inside the vehicle.  Finally he would come and we would get home late.  No respite there.  About 4 am, my mother would get us up and we would make our way to Grandma & Grandpa's in order to go with them to Julotta -- the Swedish Christmas service that begins at dawn.  Only after a night and day full of Christmas services, would Christmas finally be here.

For most folks in America, Christmas begins and ends without a trip to Church -- much less an evening and day spent in God's House.  My children have learned that Christmas is about Church -- maybe they resent it but it would not matter, it is what goes with my job.  Christmas Eve is spent at Church from 5 pm until nearly midnight.  Then we are back on Christmas Day.  I do not think they resent it anymore than I did of old -- they simply accept it.  This is a holy day, a day of holy obligation.  We come for the manger that was where Christ was first come, for the Christ who is here in Word and Sacrament, and to prepare for the Christ who is coming again.

Christmas has become more and more about things other than Christ and less and less the holy obligation of the faithful to remember His coming, receive from His presence, and prepare for what is to come.  In the end I find this terribly sad.  If I could go back in time, those Christmas Eve late nights and early Christmas morning would be high on my list of moments to repeat again and share with my wife and my children.  So in the end we offer to our children less and less to remember, less and less to receive, and less and less to expect.  It becomes more about us than about Him.  It becomes a Christmas every Jew or Muslim can celebrate right along with us and get out of it about the same as most folks who might identify as Christian.  And that is a particularly sad thought to have so close to Christmas....


Anonymous said...

As always, well put!! Over many discussions this year my wife and I are making a concerted effort to create a similar impression in the minds of our children. We hope that when they think about Christmas's past that going to "Church" stands out significantly. Unfortunately, its harder and harder to do in this culture particularly when extended family members don't understand why (and get frustrated) our family schedules dinners and other festivities around Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you on this,BUT just because folk attend church on Sunday,it doesnt mean that they are not pew sitters.Many in my church have not missed a Sunday for 18 plus years,but I am unable to sustain a theological conversation with them.They simmply do not know their bibles,why we "do" liturgy etc etc.A faithful pew sitter is no sign of true faithfulness to Christ.

John said...

I attended the 'children's' Christmas program at our church for the first time last Sunday. I became a member this past year. It was one out of only a couple of Sundays per year where The Lord's Supper was not celebrated. What a service it was!!! A wonderful sermon by Pastor. The children and congregation participated together through Word and song, the Gift of our Lord and Savior. Then, as we left, after greeting Pastor we were each handed "The Bag". I didn't have to even open it. I knew what was in it. I was overwhelmed with memories of a long ago childhood. I was brought back to the Christmas Eve program at a congregation that no longer exists in Minneapolis. I was brought back to the celebration of the birth of Christ with my sainted grandparents and parents. Thank you for posting about Christmas of the past. Thank you for posting about "The Bag".