The pandemic caused by COVID-19, or coronavirus, has resulted in a great sense of loss this holiday season. Beloved gatherings have been cancelled or moved online, routine errands now involve a litany of safety measures, jobs have been changed or lost, and good personal health is valued more than ever before. It’s rare to meet a person who hasn’t been exposed to the coronavirus, and it’s becoming more common to know someone who’s contracted the virus or, in some cases, died as a result.
These experiences aren’t limited to individuals or families, either; congregations across the state have had to adapt to sick members, leaders, pastors and community members. Even funerals have had to change from gatherings that celebrate the memories of the deceased to private services that ensure no one else contracts the virus. It may be difficult for both individuals and congregations to get into the Christmas spirit this year.
Instead of fighting or moving past this sense of grief, churches may choose to embrace it and bring those feelings to God through an appropriate worship service, such as the Longest Night, Watch Night or Chalking the Door.
The Longest NightCharacteristics of a Longest Night service:
- Commonly held on the shortest day of the year
- Focused on making space for grief and mourning
- Honors loved ones lost during the past year
- Characterized by quieter hymns and meditative worship practices
Not everyone is cheery for the Christmas holidays. Dealing with the death of a loved one, coping with the loss of a job, living with cancer or sickness, and a number of other human situations make celebrating the holidays painful for many in our congregations and communities. There is a growing recognition of the needs of people who are blue at Christmas, and an increasing number of churches are hosting services that create sacred space for people living through dark times.
Some churches call these "Longest Night Services," recognizing that the private night hours are often the most difficult. These services are often scheduled for the longest night of the year, the winter solstice, which is just a few days before Christmas. These services can be a blend of elements that recognize Christmas and the fact that Jesus came to offer hope while holding space to recognize that people are in pain. The winter solstice is also the traditional feast day for Saint Thomas the Apostle. This linkage invites some connections between Thomas's struggle to believe the tale of Jesus' resurrection, the long nights just before Christmas, and the struggle with darkness and grief faced by those living with loss.
Longest Night Services are usually meditative. They often include quieter hymns of the season (“O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”), hymns and songs that offer healing and hope (“Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” “Out of the Depths”), or Taizé songs such as “In the Lord I'll Be Ever Thankful,” “Stay with Me,” and “O Lord, Hear My Prayer.” Weave scriptures and prayers into the worship service that offer hope and encouragement. These might be only brief references in a sermon, a sentence or two in a prayer, or a specific reference in a blessing or sending forth at the end of the service. Such services are reflective, accepting where people’s spirits really are, and offering both healing and hope.
Watch NightCharacteristics of a Watch Night service:
- Commonly held on New Year’s Eve
- Focused on a renewal of faith and looking toward the new year
- Important in many African American worship settings to remember the Emancipation Proclamation becoming law
- Characterized by renewing a covenant of faith with God
John Wesley believed that Methodists and all Christians should reaffirm their covenant with God annually, so he created a service in which an individual renews their covenant with God. The Watch Night, or Covenant Renewal Service, has been a part of Methodism since Wesley first used it in 1755. He made frequent use of the service when visiting the early Methodist Societies. The remembrance of the old year, its accomplishments and its failures, plus the anticipation of a new year with its promise and hope, can lend a serious quality to the service.
Watch Night services have long been an important part of African American worship. On December 31, 1862, the night before the Emancipation Proclamation was to become law, African Americans gathered together in their churches and homes, waiting for their freedom to arrive at midnight. The night came to be known as "Freedom's Eve." When midnight and the New Year arrived, they celebrated with prayers, shouts, singing, and great thanksgiving to God. Today, more than 150 years after that first Freedom's Eve Watch Night, African Americans continue to gather in worship, prayer, and thanksgiving.
Covenant services with Watch Nights used to be held at various times of the year. The Watch Night service is today most often held on New Year's Eve, sometimes concluding at midnight; it may also be observed on New Year's Day or on the first Sunday in January. The heart of Wesley’s service focuses on the Covenant Prayer, requiring persons to commit themselves to God. This covenant is serious and assumes adequate preparation for and continual response to the covenant. Leaders of worship must take seriously the need to prepare the congregation for this service, possibly through study sessions and prayer.
Chalking the DoorCharacteristics of Chalking the Door:
- Commonly held at the start of Epiphany
- Focused on blessing homes and other significant spaces by marking on the doors with chalk
- Reminiscent of both Passover and the visit of the Magi
- Characterized by inviting God’s presence into the marked spaces
This short liturgy is a way of marking homes, usually at the front or main entrance, with sacred signs and symbols as believers ask God's blessing upon those who live, work, or visit throughout the coming year. In Exodus, the Israelites marked their doors with blood so that the Lord would pass over their homes; but in this service, doors are marked with chalk as a sign that God's presence and blessing is invited into the home.
Although the service is intended for use in private family dwellings, it is also appropriate when adapted for use in offices, apartments, college dormitories, choir rooms, Sunday school classrooms, churches, places of business, and — perhaps especially — in nursing homes, hospitals and hospital rooms, and extended-care facilities.
Chalk, a substance made of common elements of the earth, is used as an ordinary substance put to holy use. As its image fades from view over time, those who participated in its original placement will remember it and the purpose for which it was intended. In doing so, they may rededicate themselves to that purpose. After a year passes, persons will have the opportunity once again to celebrate the themes of the season and again seek God's blessing on their homes and on those who are welcomed into it.
During the chalking ceremony, the letters “C M B” are inscribed on the door frame. Some suggest the C M B may stand for "Christus Mansionem Benedicat," meaning "May Christ bless this dwelling." These letters are inscribed between the numbers of the year of the ceremony. Thus, as people are given the opportunity to participate in the chalking of the door, they will inscribe one or more of the symbols, resulting in the format like “ 20 C M B 20 to 20 C M B 21.”
The symbols are usually written on the upper horizontal piece of the door frame of the front entrance to a home or hospital room; but if younger children or people in wheelchairs participate, encourage them to place the symbols anywhere on the door frame they can comfortably reach.
Due to the linking of the liturgy to the visit of the three Magi, it is most appropriately used at the start of Epiphany. The service is flexible in where it may be used, though, and it might be used any time during the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany.