"Silent night! Holy night! All is calm, all is bright.” Many of us stand in our sanctuaries singing this hymn by candlelight, basking in the glow of Christmas joy and wonder. We look forward to exuberantly proclaiming “Joy to the world! the Lord is come” while trumpets blare, repeating the sounding joy. But for so many, it is neither calm nor bright, and there seems to be very little joy in the world. Christmas can be a dark time in which grief is more profound, loss seems keenly more painful, and an overwhelming sadness that seems out of place in the tinsel and lights threatens to swallow us up. During the season of Advent, we do acknowledge a longing for what is yet to come. We recognize the wait and the pain involved in the “not yet.” But we always do so in the context of Christmas promise and with an eye on the birth of Christ as fulfillment and joy.
After a particularly difficult year for many in our small congregation in Washington, D.C., Pastor Meg Jenista and I wrestled with ways to authentically grieve and lament both congregationally and personally during the Christmas season. We held this “Longest Night/Christmas Mourning”
service on the longest night of the year and gave people an opportunity to enter into a completely different yet completely honest service. By candlelight and the glow of the Christmas tree, tears were shed, broken hearts were given space to be broken, and we came together as brothers and sisters to acknowledge the “hopes and fears of all our years” as we were met by the ever-gracious presence of our incarnate Savior, Jesus Christ.
There are lots of options for customizing the service for your particular context and congregation. Ask your writers to submit poetry. Rewrite the prayers with the specific requests in your church. Allow for as much silence as your congregation will tolerate (and then add another thirty seconds for good measure!). We set up three prayer stations so people could pray using different senses and tangible objects. The goal of this service is not to comfort or to have the words to quell people’s grief. The goal is to open up a safe space to live into and hold the tension of the season.
Blessings as you shepherd through the valleys and rough places this Christmas.
Instruments only, or silence
Lighting of the Advent Wreath
On Sundays during Advent, we arrive at this place for worship, and we begin by lighting candles representing, peace, hope, joy, love, and light. As we light a new candle each week, we use the added glow of candlelight to show our rising anticipation for the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, a time of joy, fulfillment, and wonder. This evening we light the same candles, but we do so to honor the fact that for many people Christmas joy is masked with darkness and pain. While others around us are caught up in the hustle and bustle of the season and are busy making plans, many of us are frozen in our grief and sorrow. So tonight we light our Advent candles to acknowledge that Jesus Christ came into a broken and sinful world and became the incarnate Lord who keenly knows all our thoughts and feelings and meets us where we are.
We light this candle of peace . . . praying that in a world where there seems to be no peace, in all the unsettled places in our own lives, in our anxieties and fears, you would be our Prince of Peace.
We light this candle of hope . . . acknowledging our hopelessness. We often despair about broken relationships, about our inability to rectify a bad situation, about our addictions, about our own never-ending sadness. We pray that you would be hope to the hopeless.
We light this candle of joy . . . though joy may be difficult to find because of our physical surroundings or our emotional and mental state. We pray that your joy would be our strength.
We light this candle of love . . . acknowledging that our love for others can be the source of so much pain. We miss those whom we love but are no longer here this Christmas. We grieve with those whom we love who are suffering. We struggle with feelings of being unloved. “Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven, to earth come down.” Show us your love.
The Christ candle representing light remains unlit. For it is in darkness that we meet tonight and in darkness that we gather together to pray, to find comfort, and to be reminded of Jesus Christ, the light of the world who meets us in this place.
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” LUYH 61 (v. 1–5), PFAS 458, PH 9, PsH 328, SWM 81, TH 194, WR 154, GtG 88
Select appropriate stanzas or ask congregation members ahead of time to submit their own verses in 184.108.40.206 meter. The refrain should not be sung until the end of the service.
Ministry of the Word
Reading: Psalm 142 (or another psalm of lament)
Spoken prayers with “Come and Fill Our Hearts With Your Peace” LUYH 528, SWM 162, GtG 466
We wrote several short prayers and interspersed the Taizé refrain between each petition. Some prayers were more general for those who are suffering illness of body or mind. Some prayers were very specific to the needs of individuals in our congregation. After each prayer, a candle was lit while the refrain was being sung.
Silent Prayer with Prayer Stations
We played recorded music while people visited stations. I used the song “On the Way,” written and recorded by my dear friend Valerie Nebbia Vache after she lost her husband, the father of her three precious children, last summer. It incorporates “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in a beautiful and simple song of longing and hope. Used with permission.
During this time you may visit the prayer stations or pray quietly in your seat.
- Anointing: Come forward to a pastor for anointing with oil and for personal prayer. You may ask for prayer for yourself or for another person, and you may be as specific or as private as you need. Please indicate whether you’d like anointing on your hand or your forehead.
- Candles: Light a candle in remembrance of a loved one, in solidarity with someone who is hurting, or as a representation of your own need and prayer.
- Manger: The manger held a vulnerable infant, God incarnate; it can hold any prayer you have. Write your prayers on strips of paper and place them in the manger.
Lord’s Supper (Optional)
Reading: “First Coming”
He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.
He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait
till hearts were pure. In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.
He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
Madeleine L’Engle, from “The Ordering of Love: The New and Collected Poems of Madeleine L’Engle” © 2005, Shaw Books. Used by permission.
Song: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” LUYH 61 (v. 6 and refrain), PFAS 458, PH 9, PsH 328, SWM 81, TH 194, WR 154, GtG 88
Lord, it is night. The night is for stillness. Let us be still in the presence of God.
It is night after a long day. What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done; let it be.
The night is dark. Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives rest in you.
The night is quiet. Let the quietness of your peace enfold us, all dear to us, and all who have no peace.
The night heralds the dawn. Let us look expectantly to a new day, new joys, new possibilities.
In your name we pray. Amen.
Rev. John Williamson, from Night Prayer of A New Zealand Prayer Book He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa. This prayer is available for congregations to use at no charge in non-commercial ways in worship and education. Used by permission.