Advent and Christmas harder this year but not all bad, churches learn

Across the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting beloved Advent and Christmas traditions. As congregations adapt, some are discovering that “different” isn’t all bad.

This year, many congregations are marking these holy seasons outdoors and online. Socially distanced, open-air moments are inviting longtime members – and surrounding communities – to stay connected. Virtual services are attracting participants from around the world.

It’s not all easy. For one United Church of Christ congregation, a recent spike in COVID cases and hospitalizations has just undone even the most careful plans to hold five smaller, safe, in-person Christmas Eve services. (See related story.)

Yet with in-person gatherings curtailed, that church and others are finding ways to keep up their special holiday giving and outreach activities.

UCC ministers say adapting can be both exciting and demanding.

Another kind of ‘holy space’

“Everything is different,” said the Rev. Nancy Taylor, senior minister of Boston’s Old South Church. “Everything is harder. The COVID numbers preclude any of the in-person experiences we were considering. However, we have a full line-up of remote offerings – and a bunch of exhausted clergy and video editors.”

Old South has turned online Advent and Christmas into a time to go global. A Dec. 13 Christmas pageant, a Dec. 17 “blue Christmas” jazz worship, three Christmas Eve services and one on Christmas morning will all be livestreamed – as are regular Sunday services, which include participants from far beyond Boston.

“During the four Sundays of Advent, we have members lighting candles from all over the world: France, Lebanon, Texas, and more locally,” Taylor said. “As our candle lighters are recording themselves, and as we are editing the services before posting them, we are delighting in the experience of worldwide church. We are not gathered in one place; we are gathered in holy space.”

Bible study from afar

Advent Bible studies originating from Westmoreland Congregational UCC in Bethesda, Md., just outside Washington, D.C., have drawn distant participants too. “Probably one-third to one-half of those taking part are from away,” said the Rev. Timothy Tutt, senior minister.

During the first week in Advent, he said, “the Monday-evening weeknight study had participants from D.C. and the D.C. suburbs as well as from Chicago, Richmond, Va., Baltimore, San Jose, Calif., and other places. Our Wednesday-morning study had local participants as well as people from Georgia and Texas.”

Westmoreland members and friends are also receiving Advent “blessing bags” by mail. “We sent Christmas craft projects — an assemble-yourself candy cane church mouse, coloring pages designed by a Palestinian Christian artist along with colored pencils, a Christmas bookmark with a prayer and a how-to for making an Advent wreath,” Tutt said. “And these are not just for kids — these went to every home for people of all ages to color and create and learn and have fun.”

The congregation’s various online Advent activities will culminate in a recorded Christmas Eve pageant. “Look for angels, shepherds, magi, carols and the Christmas story in your email inbox at 12 noon on Christmas Eve,” said an announcement at the church website. “You may take part in that service once, twice or 10 times with family and friends far and near.”

Car-radio Christmas Eve

In Phoenix, Shadow Rock UCC is supplementing online gatherings – including a Zoom message on Christmas Eve and Zoom “cookie gathering” on Christmas Day – with a special outdoor opportunity.

The church will open its campus for 90 minutes on Christmas Eve so people can drive through a display of lights and luminaria, complete with music.

“You will be greeted at the entrance and instructed to adjust your radio so as to hear Christmas music,” said the Rev. Ken Heintzelman, senior minister, in an email to the congregation. “Drive slowly through the parking lot and connect with the sacred space where you have spent so many Christmas Eve evenings.

“We will have a tall Christmas tree surrounded by sandboxes with candles for you to light if you choose. There will be a secured box for your Christmas offering. You may leave with a Shadow Rock Christmas ornament.”

Battery-powered candles outdoors

Besides two livestreamed services on Christmas Eve, Federated Church in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, will offer outdoor, in-person socially distanced worship that evening. It will feature “scripture, singing, and the passing of light through the use of battery-powered candles,” said the Rev. Hamilton Throckmorton, senior pastor.

The last five Decembers, Federated’s “Search for the Christ Child” has engaged children and families in person. It’s now underway online instead, “with the opportunity for people to visit all the stations of that search in short videos on our website,” Throckmorton said. And for the first time, the church is sending Christmas cards this year to people who are homebound, he said.

Another huge Federated tradition, its Christmas Eve mission offering – “usually in the $30,000 to $50,000 range,” Throckmorton said – will be totally remote this year. Four options are described at the church’s website: mail a check or give by text, app or the web.

Usually given to a single organization, the proceeds will be split this year among four regular Federated mission partners: St. Paul’s Community Church, UCC, and Family Promise, both in Cleveland; nearby Chagrin Falls Park Community Center; and JustHope ministries in Nicaragua. “I don’t know that COVID influenced that choice, except in our recognition that all the organizations with whom we work most closely are deeply affected by COVID in a myriad of ways,” Throckmorton said.

Holiday giving traditions continue

Special holiday giving efforts are still alive in other congregations, too, despite the curtailing of in-person worship. Examples:

  • At Westmoreland, a special offering for social justice grants is usually received the Sunday before Christmas and on Christmas Eve. That will happen virtually this year, and Tutt is hopeful about it. “Our social justice board is creating slide shows and videos to use in our online services to promote the offering,” he said. “By showing those videos on several Sundays and sharing them via email and social media, we may have a larger reach than in the past.”
  • In Boston, “we are committed to gifts for about 100 children under the auspices of the Department of Foster Care,” said Taylor at Old South. “Each child has made requests for three to five gifts. Our members have been shopping. So, that’s 400-plus gifts, purchased, delivered, and personalized.” Also, she said, the church has purchased “some 500 coats” for underserved children through Coats Boston.
  • At Cathedral of Hope UCC, Dallas, members usually deliver holiday gifts to about 175 underserved students at Maple Lawn Elementary, a nearby Dallas public school, said the Rev. Neil Thomas, senior pastor. This year, at the school’s request, that will be limited to 50 students, with all gifts purchased online and shipped to the school for safe delivery to the children.
  • Near St. Louis, Christ the King UCC, Florissant, Mo., delivers fruit and Christmas gifts to participants in its youth and young adult programs and provides “grocery gift cards to families that are challenged and store gifts cards to some families with children needing assistance,” said the Rev. Traci Blackmon, senior pastor. The congregation is also keeping up its new ministry of “home-cooked meals delivered to our seniors and singles living alone,” she said. “Every family receives a Christmas card. And this year, given I will complete my pastorate on Dec. 28, each family will receive a personal letter of gratitude and thanksgiving from me.” She will continue as the UCC’s associate general minister for Justice and Local Church Ministries.

These are learning times’

If anything, Advent and Christmas may be even more spiritually rich than usual, the ministers said.

“As the pandemic started a church member loaned me a phrase: ‘These are learning times,’” Tutt said. “I keep leaning back into that phrase. We are learning so much. And much of it by trial and error, by guessing. By being willing to plan and organize and to cancel and re-arrange as needed. I am so grateful for church members who are being creative and flexible and caring in new ways. That’s advent isn’t it? New things coming to life.

“It must have been strange and disturbing and troubling for Mary and Joseph to get the word that Caesar and Quirinius were demanding that everyone travel to their hometowns for a census. And in the middle of that difficulty and dislocation Jesus was born, full of hope and peace. Our dislocation and confusion are the opposite — we can’t travel. Even so, we can keep our eyes open for new things being born among us to bring hope and peace.”

Categories: United Church of Christ News

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