Friday, December 25, 2009

The Longest Night

There is one alone, and there is not a second; yea, he hath neither child nor brother: yet there is no end of all his labor; neither is his eye satisfied with riches; neither saith he, For whom do I labor, and bereave my soul of good? This is also vanity, yea, it is a sore travail.

- Ecclesiastes 4:8, Skeptic's Annotated Bible

Today is Christmas Day. Normally, I'd have likely gone to the midnight mass held at the Richfield United Methodist Church, where a close friend and her family are members, but this year they are all overseas visiting the eldest daughter, who is herself spending the year studying abroad. Partly for this reason, and partly from curiosity, I decided that my Christmas service this year would be the Longest Night service at Aldersgate United Methodist, a church where I'd participated in a couple of shows for their Theater of the Spirit outreach ministry.

The first I'd heard of so-called 'Blue Christmas' programs was some years ago in the local alt-weekly the City Pages, which did a story on a concert specifically focusing on sad and contemplative music during the holiday season. Those organizing the concert acknowledged that some might find their efforts perverse -- why be sad during what for many is the happiest season of the year? -- yet they understood that the 'for many' in that phrase just passed means that there are some who don't find themselves feeling excited at the prospect of the Christmas and New Year's season. I thought the idea was both thoughtful and curious; after all, to some degree artists depend on the financial patronage of their audience, and while I could attest that there were definitely those who didn't find the thought of the holiday season exciting, I wondered if that audience could sustain such a program.

Years passed, and the underlying ethic of the 'Blue Christmas' concert began to spread within certain denominations: the Methodists and certain Lutheran denominations primarily. (Note: I don't think it's a coincidence that these denominations tend to be more liberal in their politics -- there is a connection, though not necessarily an absolute one, between liberalism and thoughtfulness of the troubles of others.)

The service at Aldersgate was the first such service they'd tried to host; talking with Pastor Aastuen after the service, I learned that she had heard of such services being held in other churches, and decided to host one at Aldersgate, at least in part, because of a surprising number of deaths among the aging parishoners in the previous year, thinking that a service targeted toward those in grief or despair might not just be well-received, but even be spiritually necessary for some of the remaining congregation.

From a pure attendence standpoint, the service might be judged disappointing if not a failure: when I arrived, the audience to that point consisted of me, four other Methodist pastors, and one pastor's husband. By the time the service began, there were twelve of us in the chapel, and the non-ordained outnumbered the ordained, thankfully.

Though I can't say I enjoyed the service (like a Requiem Mass or funeral service, a Longest Night service isn't intended to be enjoyable or entertaining, but cathartic), I did appreciate it, though I appreciated it more for the symbolism and mood than for the specific message. The mood was somber and restrained, as you'd expect of a service targeted at those who are not celebrating the season, and some of the symbolism was fairly profound; for example, in contract to most Christmas services I've attended, where a packed church raises their voices triumphantly, fulling the chapel with the strains of "Joy To The World" or "O, Come All Ye Faithful", our service sang "In the Bleak Midwinter" and "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel", and though a few of us were not unaccomplished as singers, the simple fact that there were just twelve of us meant that we couldn't fill the space, and our mood was such that we didn't have the energy to do so. Instead, our voices were thin and trembling, perfectly fitting the thought of us being wounded or suffering and searching for, if not healing, then at least solace from our pain.

The one part of the service I didn't ultimately appreciate was the focus of the selected Scripture: the service used the traditional Gospel verses regarding the story of the birth of Christ, focusing on the humble surroundings and simply failing to mention the glorification of those surroundings later by the arrival of angels and Wise Men and such (since, of course, glorification would have been out of place for the mood of the service). It also mentioned Isaiah 40, which some might interpret as being fitting for the service (it begins, "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.") but which, on reflection, I found to still be too optimistic. For instance, compare the following:

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain; (Isaiah 40:4)

with a verse in an earlier book:

I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. That which is crooked cannot be made straight; and that which is wanting cannot be numbered. (Ecclesiastes 1:14-15)

I suppose it's too much to ask even of a thoughtful church, but my hope was that the service wouldn't just focus on those who were sad for a reason, or mourning a specific loss, but also serve those who, like the Preacher, find life itself to be vanity, filled with frustration and toil with no obvious reward or even point.

That is, after all, part of what Longest Night is for some people: not just a reflection of the solstice, where sunlight is at a minimum and Seasonal Affective Disorder runs rampant, but a spiritual night, where hope cannot be found and the world is, at best, cloaked in shadow if not drenched in impenetrable darkness.

Perhaps it's too much to ask that a church, whose primary myth at this time of year is a story of glad tidings of great joy, find a way to reach out to those who can't see that light; to treat those people not as though they have some sort of temporary flaw or failure which time and faith will repair, but rather as people in need of actual comfort, companionship, and friendship, not just the promise of same in some ill-defined afterlife.

Perhaps we as humanity will one day find a way to love the unlovable, rather than mindlessly expect that God will take care of the problem once it no longer matters.

No comments: