The Longest Night

A worship service where sorrow is welcome

by Stacy Smith

The sanctuary at First Congregational Church in Memphis was quiet and calm, sentiments not always common just a few days before Christmas. Alongside the memorable scent of evergreen, the church offered the everyday, plain-clothes smells of the wax and flame. Dozens of flickering candles lit the floor, the tables, and the windowsills. In the darkness, the congregants greeted each other not with a cheerful hello, but with a smaller smile and maybe a silent head nod. The silence of the gathering was broken by a solo oboe calling the community to worship, and in that warm solemnity, they took their seats for worship on the “longest night” of the year.

Longest Night, or Blue Christmas, services offer special recognition of the struggles that many people face during Advent and Christmas. It’s a seasonal paradox: a time when we feel we are supposed to celebrate hope, love, joy and peace, and yet a time that may elicit depression and sadness. As Nancy Townely says, “On this night, or anytime this service is presented, we remember those for whom the holidays are not joyful; they are lonely, in mourning, feeling alienated and cast apart from family celebrations; they are experiencing depression and sadness and yet are often compelled to ‘put on a happy face’ for others, denying their true feelings.”[1] The service is often held on or around December 21, the winter solstice or the day with the least amount of sunlight. Often its somber tone evokes the struggles of the holy family – isolation, poverty, even homelessness – that are familiar parts of the story, but are often overlooked. It is a safe space for feelings and experiences that can seem contradictory to Christmas.

A Blue Christmas or Longest Night service may include any elements that convey a sense of welcome, trust and understanding in what can be a very painful time of the year. The service is most often held in the evening as a special worship offering of the church. Candles, meditative music, psalms of lament, prayers for healing, and acts of remembrance are all elements that can create a welcoming worship space. For example, Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta welcomes the voices of the children’s choir as a way of reminding the congregation of a child’s love of Christmas. Forest Brook Community Church in Ontario gives all who come a gift of a handmade ornament, while Forest Grove UCC in Oregon wraps the congregation in prayer shawls.[2] The service is also a good time to remind congregation members about counseling opportunities, bereavement groups, Stephen Ministry, or of any other ministries your church offers for people in need.

Yet the point of Blue Christmas is not to dwell in grief or inspire melancholy. The holy solemnity of the service can be a soothing balm to the plastic atmosphere of the “holidays.” And while Christmas may enhance the effects of grief and loss, the church can provide a shelter in the midst of our mental storms. Blue Christmas or Longest Night services inspire authentic and honest hopefulness rooted in the birth of the Christ-child.

At the close of the service at First Congregational, as the congregation bundled up to head back into the growing darkness of the December night, the pastor read aloud from Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” The Longest Night service welcomes both the light and the dark of Christmas season and offers a hopeful, if tenuous, joy in the midst of sorrow. By providing this service of worship to your congregation and community, you can acknowledge the struggles that many face during the Christmas season while providing a safe place of rest, comfort and healing.

[1] 1.       “Blue Christmas” by Nancy C. Townely

[2] 2.      “Blue Christmas: Helping Hurting People Cope with the Holidays” by Laura Wasson Warfel

This article was awarded the 2012 Award of Merit for Professional Resource by the Associated Church Press.

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