As worshippers fill candlelit churches tonight and Sunday for Christmas services, many will be bringing more than friends and relatives.
Many will carry hopes and expectations for a special holiday religious experience, priests and pastors said this week. Some will be looking for a respite from the busyness of the season or their lives. Others may wish to rekindle a memory of a past Christmas or the warmth of community. Still others, clergy admit, show up reluctantly just to please a spouse or parent.
Whatever the reasons for the crowds, Christmas Eve services tonight and Christmas morning services Sunday present clergy with a teachable moment -- and a challenge.
The congregation will be primed. The sermons probably will be one of the two most listened to of the year. And, with some Christmas-only worshippers in the pews, this may be the clergy’s only shot in a year to connect with them.
It can be a formidable task. Christmas sermons “are the most difficult to preach, because there’s almost nothing new to say,” said the Rev. Clyde W. Oden Jr., senior pastor of Bryant Temple A.M.E. Church on West Vernon Avenue in Los Angeles. “There’s no surprise at the end of this. Nearly everyone knows the story,” he said. Keeping sermons “relevant and fresh” is important, Oden said.
As they prepare for the big moment, some priests and pastors want to offer worshippers a respite from news of natural disasters, war and political controversy by not mentioning them. Others say they won’t hesitate to acknowledge what one called “palace lies” and “stupid wars.”
But clergy in both groups said they have a common aim: to point to a transcendent hope in the Christmas story of a loving God’s intervention in human history to bring peace on Earth.
“Christ is born to bring the glowing comfort of hope to soldiers in the sands of Iraq and immigrants in the sands of our southern border instead of more fear,” said the Rev. Mark K. Smutny, co-pastor at Pasadena Presbyterian Church. “Instead of more false promises, more violence and more grief, when we allow Christ to be born into our hearts, we work to bring his light into our darkened world and we become his agents of hope,” he said, quoting remarks he will deliver Christmas morning.
But at Revolution Church in Long Beach, Pastor David Trotter said he wouldn’t touch current events. There are differences of opinion on those issues in his predominantly Generation X and baby boomer middle-class congregation, he said.
“I don’t think most people are coming to Revolution Church looking for that type of wisdom or insight or direction. They’re [asking] what is God speaking to me in my life? How can I practically get through my week?”
He plans to light all four candles on an Advent wreath and offer vignettes on the themes of hope, peace, love and joy. A fifth candle is lighted to symbolize “Emmanuel or God with us” in the person of Christ.
For the Rev. Canon Michael A. Bamberger, rector of the Church of the Ascension in Sierra Madre, Christmas sermons must resonate with the lives of listeners. But it isn’t guesswork. “I live in the community. I work here. I talk to people. Christmas sermons are never sermons in isolation,” he said.
Bamberger plans to draw part of his sermon from the news of the last year of tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes. One point will be that “God loves us in spite of the hard year we’ve had,” he said. “God makes himself known to us in human beings as we celebrate the humanity and divinity in Jesus’ birth. And the challenge for us is to live out that witness in God’s love.”
To make that real, Bamberger said, he will ask his parish to staff a bad-weather shelter in Pasadena for the homeless. “That’s the way we make Christ known in the world,” he said.
Attendance at his Episcopal parish is always up at Christmas, he said, so he is aware of the expectations. “People are very invested in the whole experience -- not just the family experience at home, but the whole experience in the community. We are the village church. Sierra Madre has a unique character to it. I am the village priest, so people expect a lot, as they should,” he said.
The Rev. Erwin McManus, who leads Mosaic, a Christian fellowship that meets in various Southern California locations, said he finds people more open to “conversations about God, especially about Jesus” at this time of year. For that reason, he said, he has spent most of December reaching out to people.
“Many times we think God moves too slow,” he said, previewing his sermon remarks. “Even though he is from eternity, he works in time, and he works on time. The things we are going through in life, even though there may be things that are disappointing, painful or frustrating, many times it is life itself that God is using to prepare us to come to him and to know him,” McManus said.
The Rev. Ruy Mizuki said he was thinking about how many people this year had “giver’s fatigue,” having responded to human tragedy after tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes. For that reason, he said, his message at 10 a.m. Christmas Day at West Valley United Methodist Church in Chatsworth will be that “God doesn’t get tired of giving.
“He gives his best for us: the gift of his son. By the grace of God, the love of God, the power of God, we can always find something to give no matter how small: a smile, a word of encouragement, a telephone call, a cheerful attitude,” he said.
At Emmanuel Presbyterian Church on Wilshire Boulevard near downtown Los Angeles, there will be allusions to the war in Iraq and political disputes. But they segue to the Christmas story, adapted by actor-writer Keythe Farley and senior pastor the Rev. Frank Alton.
“The star is still there, twinkling, daring you to follow it. But where?” it asks. “To a political rally? To a march on the temple? To a meeting of the wise ones who sit in seats of power? Not tonight. Tonight the star leads to a backwater village where a woman has just given birth in a stable behind a small hotel.”
Father John Bakas, dean at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Normandie Avenue near Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, is one priest who doesn’t plan to talk about politics.
“I’m not going to get into that on Christmas Day,” he said. He’ll stick to the traditional story. “God reached down through human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, and picked us up from death and hopelessness and from defeat,” Bakas said.
He said he also will allude to a dramatic statue outside the cathedral showing God’s arm and hand reaching down to clasp a person’s hand. A plaque, he said, quotes a prayer: “Lord, when we fell, you raised us up again. You did not cease doing everything until you led us to heaven.”
But before he speaks, Bakas said, he and the congregation will enjoy a traditional hymn, to be sung in Arabic by Carole Choucair Oueijan, an Antiochian Orthodox chanter.
“She has such a voice, it’s musical surgery. It cuts right into your heart,” Bakas said. “I’m a priest who can be cynical at times, but I couldn’t keep my lip from trembling with emotion. We want to keep it simple. We don’t harangue people on Christmas, or harangue against materialism or talk about the hypocrisy of the season. People know that in their hearts. We look at the hope that is there for a new beginning.”