Contrary to the song lyrics, it’s not the most wonderful time of the year for many of us. The jingle bell merriness of the season is like an out-of-tune gong for those grieving the deaths of family members or friends, struggling in the wake of a divorce, suffering the effects of broken relationships, experiencing financial hardship, or dealing with the effects of physical or mental illness in themselves or their loved ones.
My family has been marked in recent years by each one of these losses. There have been years when it has seemed as though all the most lovely gifts and warmest invitations were inscribed with the names of others. Advent’s practices of simplicity and themes of waiting have been a balm for me during the darkest days, as they’ve helped me to fight the temptation to compare what I don’t have with what I imagine others do. The prayers and hymns of Advent are rich with the language of longing, of groans too deep for words. My soul is familiar with the sound of those groans.
Even in congregations committed to the church calendar’s Advent worship cycle, church services during December can be a challenging place to be for those struggling with loss. Most church event calendars are full of various holiday gatherings, children’s programs, and other events that don’t always sync with those in mourning.
That is why I am appreciative of the churches that host Blue Christmas services at this time of year. When our sorrow was fresh and December’s festivities seemed to pour salt in our open wounds, an acquaintance invited my husband and I to a Blue Christmas service at her church. It remains to this day one of the most meaningful holiday worship services I’ve ever attended.
This invitation snippet from a website with a number of Blue Christmas service resources captures the reason behind this service:
“Cries of ‘Merry Christmas!’ and non-stop caroling contrast with the feelings of many people at this time of year. For those suffering from the recent or impending death of loved ones, dealing with recent separation or divorce, struggling to find employment, or facing depression or family crisis, this can be a very isolated and dreary time. Every greeting and every song reminds the grief-stricken of how unhappy life is at this moment. We recognize that a lot of the Christmas celebrations do not meet everyone’s needs. To fill this gap we are offering Blue Christmas.”
Many Blue Christmas services are offered on or near the shortest day of the year (December 21st), a nod to the darkness of the season as well as capturing the final movement of the Advent season. The liturgy of the Blue Christmas service we attended two years in a row was intentionally simple, and followed this structure.
While about 70% of those in attendance were members of the host congregation, many were visitors who’d been invited by friends, referred via local hospice chaplains or from connections with members of a local National Alliance for Mental Illness chapter. The pastor opened the service by affirming that each of us was there because of loss, and letting us know we were not alone; Immanuel was near. The Scripture readings were punctuated with the familiar, haunting lyrics of O Come, O Come Emmanuel. The liturgical “prayers of the people” (congregational prayer) allowed both space and silence for those who wished to voice their loss or struggle as well as those who chose to offer it in prayer to the Lord in silence.
As a pianist played quiet instrumental music, those gathered were invited to come forward to light individual candles as a way of honoring our loss. Prayer ministers were available to pray with or for us for specific needs, or simply to lay their hands on our heads and offer a blessing over us. The pastor ended the service with a few additional words of words of comfort. Congregation members had baked and wrapped individual loaves of sweet holiday breads, and handed a loaf (or two!) to each person departing the sanctuary.
I left was grateful someone had made a space for us in the midst of the season. The Blue Christmas service certainly didn’t erase our pain, but as we shared our grief with one another and expressed it before the Lord, we were comforted a bit and strengthened to go back into the world to face the holidays, knowing we were not alone in our grief.
For those of you planning holiday services this year, it is probably too late to include a Blue Christmas service in your schedule. But if you’re putting together a file for next year, book mark this idea. A Blue Christmas service is something well worth offering to your community – or partnering with another congregation that’s already having one. It is a profound, practical way to mourn with those who mourn, and honor the One who is well-acquainted with our sorrow.