A year ago at this time, it would have been inconceivable that we would not be gathering together on December 24th to hear the Christmas story, sing “Silent Night,” and celebrate God’s promise in the birth of Jesus to be Emmanuel, “God with us.”
A year later, that thought is still difficult to imagine. The only thing more inconceivable, however, is gathering together inside for a worship service that by its very nature endangers those in attendance and risks spreading a virus that has already taken the lives of nearly 300,000 U.S. citizens and more than a million and a half of God’s children worldwide.
We here at Bethel have decided not to hold in-person worship on Christmas Eve. This decision, while difficult, is consistent with the decisions of countless Christian communities across the millennia to put the welfare of others above our own wants, desires, and rights. In fact, the willingness of Christians to prioritize the needs of others during previous pandemics contributed significantly to the growth of the Christian movement in the ancient world. In both the Antonine Plague of the second century and the Plague of Cyprian in the third, Christians became renowned for the extreme lengths to which they would go to care for the sick, not only among their own ranks, but also those of other faiths.*
As your Pastor, I am committed to helping you “Keep Christmas” differently this year, celebrating the advent of God’s love enfleshed in the Christ child via digital means, with online worship and by encouraging and equipping our members to celebrate Christ’s nativity in their homes both joyfully and safely. My hope is that our church family will commit to obeying Christ’s command to “love your neighbor” (Luke 10:27) in and through our worship practices, which means that we will not be gathering for in-person worship on December 24 or for the remainder of 2020.
So while our celebrations of Christmas at Bethel will be different than we had imagined or hoped for this year, I believe they are in keeping with the Christian Church’s insistence to put the needs of others before our own. More importantly, I believe the decision not to gather inside our beautiful sanctuary this Christmas Eve out of regard for the health and safety of our neighbors is in keeping with spirit of the One whose birth we celebrate, the One who declared that he “came not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28) and instructed his disciples to “love one another, just as I have loved you” (John. 13:34).
If we can do that, then the strange silence of this night will be Holy indeed.
Blessings and Peace,
Rev. Julie Belman
* Stark, Rodney. The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996, p. 83-84.