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Friday, December 21, 2007

ENS: Blue Christmas

When 'Joy to the World' is hard to capture, Blue Christmas services help
By Mary Frances Schjonberg, December 21, 2007

[Episcopal News Service] During these shortest days and longest nights of the year, many Episcopal Church congregations are offering services meant to bring comfort to those who struggle to find the joy of the Advent and Christmas seasons.
Often called Blue Christmas or Longest Night services, many take place the evening of December 21, the night of the winter solstice, and are designed for people who are coping with loss.

Those people hear the Christmas song that describes "the most wonderful time of the year with the kids jingle belling and everyone telling you 'Be of good cheer'" but instead feel they are living the lyrics of the 1957 hit "Blue Christmas" when Elvis Presley sings "I'll have a blue Christmas without you, I'll be so blue just thinking about you."

The Rev. Deacon Richard Spencer of Trinity Church in Ossining, New York, said the world tells people "if you buy this present, you'll be happy and it will be all ho-ho-ho and joy to the world. Well, what if there's no joy in my world?"
Spencer said his experience in offering Blue Christmas services shows that the effort is about "bringing the light of Christ into the darkness of their lives."

The rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Chatham, New Jersey, would agree. "It's probably one of the most pastoral things I do at Christmas," said the Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton.

Kaeton places the rationale for offering a Blue Christmas service squarely within the message of Christmas. Noting that Episcopalians proclaim in The Book of Common Prayer's Preface of the Commemoration of the Dead (pages 349 and 382) that "life is changed, not ended," she said. "I think this message gets carried into this service in a way that Christmas sentimentality doesn't."

"If we really understand why Christ came to us, then you really have to think about death and eternal life," she said.

Scott Hagler, the minister of music at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Durango, Colorado, said "there is constant loss in a community, and the faith community is certainly no different."

"I think there is far more suffering during the holidays than we are aware of (though likely much of it is masked), and if the service provides even a brief respite to a few, I'll be very happy," said Hagler, who has offered Blue Christmas services in the past in Denver and has planned St. Mark's first for December 21.

The liturgies vary but usually include quiet music ranging from Taize chants to Advent and Christmas hymns, Scripture readings, recitation of Psalms and prayers. Often, the prayers are accompanied by the sequential lighting of all the candles on the Advent wreath.

"I think the main thing I kept in mind as I was doing research and designing the service was that I wanted to begin with the acknowledgment of pain and loss, and by the end of the service offer some sense of relief, hope or uplifting," Hagler said. "We'll offer opportunities for worshipers to light candles, sing, pray, and to meditate."

Spencer has learned that silence is needed in the services -- and more than one might expect. He said it's a question of doing less during the service, not more.

"Keep it simple because grief is very complex," Kaeton advised. "Just let the service be and let the people take out of it what they will."

Participants in the St. Paul's service on December 22 will hang blue ornaments on the evergreen in the sanctuary, the first decorations on the tree which has thus far been bare for Advent. The next day the rest of the congregation will see those ornaments as they decorate for Christmas, having prayed during the Prayers of the People for the losses the ornaments represent.

"It becomes a congregational experience," Kaeton said.

Not everyone who comes to a Blue Christmas service is trying to cope with the death of a loved one. Both Spencer and Kaeton said they've encountered people who are grieving over the loss of a job, the loss of their health or vitality, the loss of a dear pet, their change to empty nesters, or their addictive behaviors either past or present and the pain they have caused others.

Kaeton said one participant told her that she'd been a recovering alcoholic for 20 years but still grieved over the damage she did while she was drinking and the fact that she simply doesn't remember a lot of her life because of her drinking years.

Sometimes grief can be too raw to bring to such a service, Kaeton said. People who did not come to St. Paul's first Blue Christmas service in 2006 told her that it comforted them to know that a religious community recognized the difficulties some people face at the holidays and would pray for them. The services "send a really powerful message to those whose grief is very deep and is very personal," Kaeton said, adding the intimacy of the service is not something that every grieving person is ready to experience.

Thus, publicizing a Blue Christmas/Longest Night service is as important as offering it. Both Spencer and Kaeton said they posted fliers around their communities and announced the services with whatever diocesan-wide communications tools they had. Kaeton wrote about the service and posted the liturgy on her webblog "Telling Secrets." Spencer wrote about his experiences for the Episcopal New Yorker, the Diocese of New York's newspaper.

They both specifically invited people they thought might be in need for such a liturgy. Spencer discussed the idea with people during coffee hour. Kaeton looked over her parish directory to identify people she knew had suffered some kind of loss in the last five years and sent them invitations. In the end, she said, most of last year's participants were form outside the St. Paul's congregation.

Using the local media is another way to get the word out. The Rev. Andrew Cooley, rector of St. Mark's in Durango and Hagler spoke to the Durango Herald newspaper about their plans.

Both Spencer and Kaeton say the liturgies their parishes offered were attended by small numbers of people. Don't be disappointed by the turnout, Kaeton advise, but instead know that "the really powerful message" that the church cares does come through.

Variations of Blue Christmas/Longest Night services are available at the following URLs.
Background about the growing tradition is available here and here.

One example of a flier publicizing a Blue Christmas service is available here.
* A current online chat about experiencing Blue Christmas/Longest Night services can be accessed at the Episcopal Café website here.

* Other suggestions for handling grief during the holidays are available here.
-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.

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