With Thanksgiving behind us, we Christians in the United States now turn our focus toward Christmas. Many of us in the United Church of Christ take the season of Advent to reflect and wait for the metaphorical arrival of the Christ child. Others of us put up a Christmas tree and start singing carols the day after Thanksgiving. Still others of us have to figure out how to celebrate Christmas while also celebrating additional major holidays in multi-faith families. One way or another, though, Christmas looms on the horizon.
But how do we celebrate Christmas this year? So many of our traditions are dependent on getting together in person, which is one of the most dangerous things we can do right now. In December, we usually gather in sanctuaries to light Advent candles. We attend children’s Christmas pageants. We travel to see family, or our families travel to see us. And even those of us who don’t go to church every week usually make it a point to attend a Christmas Eve service in a sanctuary that is more packed than it has been since Easter some eight months prior.
That’s what we usually do. Because of the pandemic, though, many of these traditions have to change this year. By July, the vast majority of Mainline Christians (including UCC folks) were already worshipping online, and by December 6th, the coronavirus was killing more than four times as many Americans per day as it was on July 6th. For these reasons, Christmas has to change this year. But in what ways? And why? How exactly are we going to celebrate Christmas, especially when many of us don’t feel like celebrating at the end of this horrific year?
UCC congregations across the nation are grappling with these questions, to which there are few clear answers. First-Plymouth Church in Lincoln, NE has turned their long-planned indoor Christmas experience (including a live nativity) into a drive-through outdoor experience. First Congregational Church in Washington, DC mailed Advent supplies to their members while having Advent Candle Lighters maintain this tradition from their homes via Zoom. Some of our churches are meeting completely online at this point; some are doing hybrid online/in-person worship experiences with masks and social distancing.
Through it all, though, clergy and church leaders are reaching out and supporting one another at a level that I have rarely seen in the United Church of Christ. Clergy support groups on Facebook are more active than ever, as pastors resource each other with online pageant materials and genuinely ask about each other’s wellbeing. The national setting of the UCC will be leading virtual worship on the Sunday after Christmas Day, allowing every faith community to join the service (and thus allowing weary clergy to take a Sunday off). These are critically needed support networks amid the hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions sick, and millions more than ever facing mental health challenges. In these unprecedented and tragic times, church leaders are showing up for one another in unprecedented and beautiful ways.
God willing, this will be the only Christmas that will require us to pivot so radically and quickly (and for such awful reasons). Still, we’ve learned a lot about how to do church amid a pandemic since we were scrambling at Easter. Amid the sorrows of this terrible year, I see signs of support, care, and love springing up online across the UCC. As we acknowledge our sorrows and grieve over all we’ve lost, let us also prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ this year by savoring the beauty that God is birthing in our midst even now.