With this as my second Christmas season as a pastor, two things are becoming evident.
(1) This is like no other season, no other holiday, no other festival in the church year. There's something about the combination of all the factors that makes this incredibly unique.
The changing weather systems meet the vast level of cultural participation in the holiday head on, creating a perfect storm of physical and relational reminders that Christmas is on it's way. Of course, the way that our society celebrates Christmas often skews the Biblical and theological intent of the holiday, but even so, Wal-Mart doesn't sell decorations for Christ the King Sunday. Target doesn't peddle gifts for All Saints. Combine that with the growing chill outside, and you've got a definite marker that change is upon us.
Then comes the levels of preparation in the liturgy, in the sanctuary, and in the congregation. I'm finding that Advent, while a more joyful season than Lent, brings its own set of burdens. Illnesses seem to appear more regularly, whether common colds due to the weather, depression due to the lack of light, or just the trials of the aged getting more and more difficult. A level of unspoken expectations arise as well. How we decorate certain things, what hymns we sing, and when we hold the services brings joy to some and grief to others. Add to that the complexity of the Advent and Christmas services, and you've got a matrix unlike any other in the church year.
Yet, this isn't a complaint. Out of this forge we grow stronger as a church, an iron sharpened and cleansed of impurities. In this season, unlike any other, we meet our Maker in a manger. These preparations, expectations, illnesses and all sorts of other factors push us toward Bethlehem where we, however briefly, find ourselves in awe that God loves us much more than we could ever comprehend.
(2) Pastors and church staff don't experience it in the same way. I say this as someone who wasn't always on staff at a church. There's something about the responsibility of that season falling squarely on our shoulders that changes how the season affects us.
Of course, no two pastors are the same, but I'm finding for me that this means that I don't find the same level of comfort at Christmas. Instead, a heightened awareness comes. Sometimes, this appears in questions: "Are all the candles ready for when we sing Silent Night in the dark? Who will show up? Have we visited all of our sick and homebound members?" Sometimes it appears in behaviors, like my deep need to continue my workout routine or a more frequent habit of eating out because cooking just isn't going to happen on many of these days. Most often, though, this sense of awareness is the simple and constant realization that I'm not God.
That's the most liberating part of this season for me. No matter how hard we try this season, something will go wrong. I'm not justifying a sloppy service or poor pastoral care, because in fact I think we've made some excellent strides this year in both of those arenas. Rather, I've found that no matter how much preparation and delegation we do, something will go wrong. An unexpected need will arise. An unknown factor will appear.
Fortunately for us, fortunately for me, an unexpected child arrives on Christmas Eve, once unknown but now known to all of us. In Jesus Christ, God comes and accomplishes all that we cannot. The Lord is with us, which frees me to continue my vocation as an imperfect person and imperfect pastor, but growing every day in the image of the God that we find in Bethlehem.
Now, back to preparing for Christmas. In this season that is unlike any other, I hope that you experience the fullness of God, the joy of Jesus' birth, and the work of the Spirit in the ways that you need it most.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.