by David Romanik
“Where children pure and happy pray to the blessed Child
where misery cries out to thee, Son of the mother mild;
where charity stand watching and faith holds wide the door,
the dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.”
One of the Heavenly Rest staff’s practices is to have a weekly conversation in which we reflect on the previous Sunday’s services and look forward to the coming week. While this is always a useful enterprise, it is a particularly important exercise in the wake of major holidays. In the weeks following Christmas of 2019, for instance, the clergy and staff gathered to discuss what changes we might make to our Christmas celebrations in 2020. As I remember, the alterations we discussed were mostly of a cosmetic nature: we thought the 4:00 Christmas Eve service needed to be a little more family-friendly, and we wondered if the 8:00 service needed to take place later in the evening. I think it is safe to say that none of us could have imagined the changes necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. From outdoor services to worship online, Christmas at Heavenly Rest looked dramatically different than it has in previous years.
On one level, our celebration of Christ’s birth felt overwhelmingly strange. In the moments before our online only Festival Holy Eucharist, I thought, “This is weird. Somehow it feels even weirder than Easter.” And yet, as soon as the prelude began, I realized instantly that, no matter what form our observance had to take this year, it was still Christmas. The music at all three of our Christmas Eve services was glorious. The altar was magnificent, and the Courtyard was beautifully decorated. We still sang carols, we still heard the message of the angels, we still kept all the promises revealed by God in Jesus Christ and pondered them in our heart.
In some cases, I would suggest that our unusual circumstances may have enhanced our celebration of Christmas at Heavenly Rest. At the 6:00 Service of Lessons and Carols, for example, I was struck that during the reading about the magi, I could see the confluence of Jupiter and Saturn in the Western sky. Just after the service, a parishioner pointed out that Venus was visible overhead. If we hadn’t been outside, we wouldn’t have been able to acknowledge these celestial witnesses to the Nativity. Even more meaningful for me was the moment when I stood in the darkness, reading the prologue to John’s gospel. As I read, I noticed the Christmas lights in the Courtyard, visible icons of the words I was reciting: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”. I came away from that service legitimately wondering, “is this a service that we should offer every year?”
This was a special Christmas in many ways, in part because it challenged the clergy and staff at Heavenly Rest to ask ourselves two related questions, namely 1) What is most important for people’s experience of church at Christmastime? and 2) What is most important for people to experience this Christmas? These questions allowed us to be uncommonly focused on giving people the opportunity to hear the story of redemption and make their hearts glad with carols of praise. More importantly, it empowered us to remind the people of this parish of an immutable Christmas truth: that the light continues to shine in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.