IS IT too late to mention
Christmas? I am aware that even the Three Kings have moved on, but
there is something about carol services which I need to get out of
my system before we do it all again next year. Warning: carol
services can make you angry.
Each year, I go with a
group of friends to a carol service, visiting a different church
each time. We are an odd bunch, but find ourselves in agreement
about the following.
(1) We struggle when the
preacher imagines a monopoly on "the true meaning of Christmas".
Christmas, like love, has many meanings, and it's best if those in
the pulpit do not presume special knowledge in this matter. And,
while we are on the subject of presumption, (2) don't presume you
know what the congregation - or, indeed, anyone - is feeling. At
this year's carols, the preacher spent the first five minutes
telling us why we were enjoying the service so much. He was clearly
not a mind-reader.
The old adage "Less is
more" is certainly true for carols; so (3) keep it short. Carols
tend to be rather demanding affairs, long and noisy; so there must
be a very good reason for the event to last more than an hour. (The
only possible excuse is the daring use of holding space and
contemplative silence; but there was no room at the inn for those
wonders where we were this year: just constant noise, whether
musical or talking.)
(4) Make the church look
wonderful, smell wonderful, and feel wonderful - but do not use the
service like some promotional video, and do not preach for numbers.
There is nothing duller or darker than a preacher taking the deep
mystery of Christmas and turning it into a thinly disguised speech
about why we should be back here next Sunday. We have come to
celebrate Christmas rather than feel like targets in the numbers
game. Let us leave feeling awe rather than "got at".
The only time the friend
on my left audibly choked was about eight minutes into the sermon,
when the preacher felt, for credibility perhaps, that he should
mention the suffering in the world.
"There is suffering in
the world," he told us. "There's been the terrible school shooting
in America, the bombs in Syria, and so on." It was the "and so on"
that truly got my friend going; and so (5) is suffering: beware of
lip service. My sense is that references to trouble-spots from
which we quickly move on are always a mistake.
Instead, we simply use
words and sentences that are as true in a world of suffering as
they are in a world of beauty; words that acknowledge the pain and
hold it, without any attempt to be specific. Our listeners will be
specific in their own hearts.
P.S. Choirs are best to the side, out of eye-line. We love to
hear them; we do not want to see them.