If your holiday liturgy is a string of special numbers and exciting extras, your congregation may be missing the true communion of Christmas.
My first congregation was a small and struggling Reformed Church in a sagging, central-Jersey factory town. Our average attendance was no more than fifty, and we didn't have a choir because we couldn't afford a choir director. But in spite of our humble circumstances, the five Christmases I worshiped there were the best Christmases of my life.
The congregation had once been Hungarian Reformed and still retained some of the traditions of that denomination. One of those traditons—celebrating Christmas with Holy Communion—was one of the high points of the church year for many members of that congregation. Even some of the shut-ins managed to attend.
Those services always inspired me. They were simple and reverent, solemn without being somber. The liturgy included no anthems, no special music, no solos—none of the extras we usually tack on to make things seem more festive. No one ever left the service saying things like "How meaningful" or "That was really impressive." Instead the congregation left with a mood of devotion, having experienced joy much deeper than entertainment can offer.
The climax of the service was always the commemoration of Jesus' death and resurrection and the sharing in his body and blood. He was born to die that we might live, that "Adam's orphans" (a favorite phrase from one of the hymns our older members loved) could have a seat at the table. In our humble little church we knew that the Lord himself had come to be with us and, as surely as we ate and drank, to fill our souls with joy.
"Joy" is a word made cheap by modern Christmases. So much of our celebration strikes me as "make-joy." All the cantatas, the pageants, the extra decorations, the extra effort in the music, the extra-long liturgies and programs—so much of it is "make-joy." Every December finds us looking for new things to do, new ideas, new banners. But when, in our attempt to be fresh, we leave out Holy Communion, we really miss the center of the celebration. The deepest joy of Christmas comes not from our liturgical activity but from Jesus' gift of himself in his Word and Spirit.
Down to Essentials
I serve a congregation of Dutch background now. Christmas Communion is unheard of here. The remarkable thing about this state of affairs is that the Church Order of Dort (1618) calls for Christmas Communion (and Easter and Pentecost Communion, as well). The same synod that wrote the famous Canons of Dort called for Christmas Communion—and with good reason.
At the time of the Reformation the holidays had gotten out of hand. The days that marked the saving events in the life of Christ had gotten all mixed up with the extra ceremonies and extra expenses of secular and semipagan festivities. The strategy for reforming these celebrations was the strategy of discipline: simplify the celebrations— especially the sacraments—and get them down to the essentials.
Essentials are all that small, poor congregations can afford. So when it came to Christmas, the size of my first congregation was a blessing in disguise. All we could afford were the psalms and hymns, the Word, our prayers, and Holy Communion; we had no manufactured joy—only the basic tools that Jesus uses to share his own joy with us.
We often talk about the need to "put Christ back into Christmas." But doing so requires discipline. If we do as the Reformers did—if we bring discipline to the Word and sacraments—we will discover that Christ never left Christmas. The emptiness that we feel is our own. We have stayed too long on the hillside, busily trying to imitate the glory and the music of the angels, instead of following the shepherds to Bethlehem. Not until we approach that humble cradle will we see the little body that will be broken; discerning his body in devotion, we may lift our hearts to worship God on high.
"Put Christ back into Christmas" is a call to put the full gospel back into Christmas. And that's just what Christmas Communion does. The words of the liturgy— which repeat the whole gospel story, from creation to cross to resurrection—remind us to confess and repent, to turn and be healed, to come hungry and be fed. Communion reminds us that Christmas is a day for conversion, that the birth of Christ enables us to be born again.
I know that many prejudices, fears, and misunderstandings stand in the way of Christmas Communion. Where the authentic Calvinist tradition has died out, people will mistrust the idea of celebrating the sacrament on Christmas. Worse than that, people will oppose the idea because they enjoy their performances.
To soften some of that opposition, I suggest a modest kind of discipline. Let Christmas Eve be the public Christmas service and Christmas Day the holy service of Word and sacrament. Make the two services very different. On Christmas Eve ring all the bells, sing all the anthems, photocopy all the liturgies and readings. But on Christmas morning—no matter how big your congregation—celebrate the solemnities in simplicity and humility.
Dedicate Christmas Eve to evangelism. This is one of the few services that our culture encourages people to attend. As a result, the crowd you have on Christmas Eve is your potential "market" for evangelism. Many of these people have come to be entertained. So use the opportunity to reach them: Plan a very public Christmas Eve service that includes something for everyone—children through senior citizens. Then advertise your program well. Place an ad in the newspapers and pass out flyers in the neighborhood.
Don't aim for commitment or communion in this service. Your goal is to make contact, to tell the gospel sure and simple, to confess the faith with honesty, and to get the names of visitors before they leave so that you can visit them in January.
But on Christmas morning everything is different. The world stays home, sleeping in or opening presents. The church is called out of the world. The congregation has gathered around the Word and sacrament in self-discipline. The expectation is holiness, and the mood is devotion. On this morning you may feel by faith the heart of God made flesh in jesus Christ: "O taste and see that the Lord is good." "I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord."