Ready or not, here it comes.
Christmas has a lot of baggage to be sure, but there is something special about worship during this overstuffed season that I appreciate.
Churches plan for months for the services and activities that fill their calendars from November to the end of the year, and even when Christmas is nowhere near my thoughts, our staff is busy working out the details of the production of the Advent devotional booklet, the Hanging of the Green service, recruiting people to light the candles of the Advent wreath, rehearsing with the choir for lessons and carols, picking the perfect date for the children’s elf workshop, arranging for recipe sharing at the cookie swap, and much, much more.
I appreciate the visual component of worship this time of year. As iconoclasts, Baptists tend to have more spartan worship spaces, but at Christmas, our churches come alive with greenery, bows, candles, and icons of a sort in the form of Nativity scenes of all sizes.
At my church, the creche shows up during the Hanging of the Green service the Sunday after Thanksgiving. The interactive service involves our pastor inviting the children down front for a brief explanation of each decorative item with appropriate carols and hymns serving as thoughtful interludes between each one. Members bring in the items one at a time beginning with the evergreens and ending with the Chrismon tree.
The wooden stable and manger with its requisite straw is already in place on the Lord’s Supper table when members process in with Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and various animals found in a first-century stable. The manger is left empty until Christmas Eve when the Christchild figurine is placed on his bed of hay.
I like that touch. Each of the four Sundays of Advent, it serves as an important reminder of our anticipation. We light candles of hope, peace, joy, and love, incrementally closing in on the celebration of Christ’s birth, and the visual of the empty manger tells me it’s not quite time. Seeing the tiny figure of the baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas Eve makes me smile.
I clearly remember one year when we were at the Christmas Eve service early to rehearse our family’s part in lighting the Christ candle in the Advent wreath, and the pastor and church staff were in a panic because they couldn’t find Jesus. Now that’s a sermon illustration if I’ve ever heard one.
This year, in our decorating frenzy before Hanging of the Green, someone held up the painted ceramic baby and asked, “What do we do with Baby Jesus until Christmas?” A great question and yet another excellent sermon illustration. It was decided he would be tucked away on the shelf in the cross-shaped lectern in the pulpit.
Another detail I relish is that we never place the wise men at the stable during Hanging of the Green. The Samp family has been processing in the magi as long as I can remember, and Jim, the patriarch who stands at 6-foot-6-inches tall, places them on a platform above and stage left of the choir, symbolizing the distance of their journey to see the Christchild. As Jim stretches to place the bejeweled and turboned wise men, the pastor explains how they showed up to worship Jesus later and were not at the stable the night of his birth.
Like the Baby Jesus on Christmas Eve, the wise men do find their way to the baby on Epiphany. It’s a small detail, but if you are going to use figurines as visual aids in worship, I like for them to tell a scripturally accurate story.
After Epiphany Sunday, our Nativity goes back into storage for another 11 months when the Hanging of the Green returns. It adorns the front of our church as a focal point throughout the Advent and Christmas seasons, long enough to serve as a powerful reminder of Christ’s presence.
Even when I’m not feeling “Christmassy,” it’s comforting to arrive at church and see the empty manger. That lets me know it’s okay not to be fully in the Christmas spirit yet because Jesus has not yet arrived. There’s still time to “Let every heart prepare him room.”
May you experience the profound presence of Christ when he arrives in your manger scene this Christmas.