Christmas is about family, celebrating the birth of Jesus with family, living in God’s joy with family. This year is one of those odd years where our normal family celebrations of Christmas come into conflict with our weekly worship celebrations (i.e. Christmas falls on Sunday). Families are debating how to handle this dilemma, “Do we forgo Sunday worship”, “Do we alter our family traditions”, “Does Christmas Eve count as weekly worship”. These are serious questions and each family whether consciously or not will be dealing with them this Christmas. (The question of whether one is doing due diligence by attending a Christmas Eve service and does not have to come back Christmas morning is illegitimate. Anyone who thinks of worship services as having to show up once a week is missing the point. To say that because you showed up once you are excused from other worship events is to miss the point of the service.)
As I see it the real questions among believers is about who we intend to worship with and how we will worship. (You will notice I am assuming that any Christians debating the merits of attending a normal morning worship service on Christmas morning are planning to hold worship as part o their private celebration.) Are we going to worship in a regular manner (the same way we worship every Sunday) or are we going to choose a more festive, less formal brand? Are we going to worship in private with a small band or publicly with our usual larger community? Here a creative congregation may be able to alter their typical worship pattern to be more festive to suit the needs of the congregation on that day. Perhaps a more festive celebration which featured more singing and more food than normal is precisely what is called for. Would this undermine the question of style, of people wanting a traditional celebration? I think to some degree it should, I fully understand people wanting a different worship experience on Christmas Day, it is different, I think churches should strive to reflect the nature of the day in their approach to worship on that special morning.
The other major concern people seem to have is they “want to spend time with family”. I am less courteous to this concern (at least as it is normally expressed). Most people seem to draw a clear distinction between family and fellow-churchgoers. This is an artificial distinction. Paul spends enormous effort in his letters trying to show the various churches that they are indeed family! Notice all of those pesky references to “brothers and sisters” in his letters, they are not simply a cute way of talking, he meant it! “You will notice we say ‘brother and sister’ ‘round here, it’s because we’re a family and these are so near” wrote Bill and Gloria Gaither. If this is the case, then our tribalism of placing precedence on DNA relationships is immature. Thinking of the man sitting next to me as less a brother than the one who was born from the same womb is an insult to what Jesus is trying to accomplish. Christmas, one of the most intimate family celebrations in our culture, becomes the perfect time to deepen the familial connections in our churches. Now, there are exception s to this rule, of course, but, I many simply feel a deeper connection to their biological family members and do not want to put in the effort to develop that same feeling toward others in the congregation.
Closely related to the concern of spending time with family is the desire of parents to watch their children open presents and to linger with them as they enjoy their new possessions. To this I respond, who do the presents come from? Parents of little children will most likely respond “Santa”. So parents are placing the priority of Christmas (at least in the children’s mind) on Santa and accumulating things.
Again, I must be clear I would not dare say that there are not families whose legitimate Christmas celebrations interfere with attending a normal worship service; what I am saying is that often family celebrations are used as an excuse to undermine the true meaning of Jesus’ life. God intends that the Church become a family, God intends that we are a festive people, God intends that we focus on the Divine Kingdom rather than material things. All of this comes together in that great Divine sacrifice of the Incarnation. Can we appropriately celebrate God’s sacrificial gift by placing priorities on material gifts, and tribal affections? God has offered us Christmas as a means of grace, a way to deny our “self”s, are we going to accept this grace or deny it? How are we going to celebrate Christmas this year? That might be a touch heavy handed, but, I find very few people have truly reflected on what is offered in a morning worship service and what it means to lay it aside in favor of private worship. My wife and I have found that as we have opened our Christmas celebration up to others we have experienced wonderful growth in our relationships. As we have shared our meals with, and bought presents for, those who are outside our biological family, we deepened our bonds with those we invited. The distinction between insider and outsider in our family has faded some and we have seen more of what God’s desires in the family of the Church. This is difficult it requires sacrifice, but, it is worth it, as you expand what it means to be family.