The Christmas season is often marked by expressions of joy, excitement, and happiness. It’s a time for family to gather and for churches to worship pointing to the hope that is found in the coming of the Christ child. However, this time of joy and expectation can often overshadow the pain and hurt many experience during this season, when the world's merriment puts their grief and sorrow in start relief.
One of the greatest acts of pastoral care in the Advent season is to offer a service known as a Service of the Longest Night. It’s a worship service scheduled around the winter solstice (the longest night of the calendar year) and it just happens to fall on or around December 21st every year. As Dan Benedict notes: “it is also the traditional feast day for Saint Thomas the Apostle. This linkage invites making some connections between Thomas's struggle to believe the tale of Jesus' resurrection, the long nights just before Christmas, and the struggle with darkness and grief faced by those living with loss.”
A couple of practice tips for ordering a worship service for such an occasion:
Be sure to use Advent hymns.
Those gathered for this service will bring a variety of issues causing pain. The last thing you want to do is add to that pain by singing “Joy to the World” or “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” As good as those hymns are, they are also a reminder of the part of the season your worshippers are coming to get a break from. Advent hymns are often played in minor chords and have lyrics pointing to hope in the presence of mystery. These hymns will set a mood appropriate for a Service of the Longest Night.
Don’t forget to light the Advent Wreath.
The whole season of Advent is a time to grapple with human suffering. Unfortunately, too many of us have allowed it to become a pre-Christmas celebration. This service offers you the opportunity to reclaim the richness of the theology of the Advent season. So be sure to light the Advent Wreath and use liturgy appropriate for the act.
If you must preach, don’t preach very long.
Hearing a “word from the Lord” is always an act of pastoral care. But be sensitive to the power found in actively worshipping together. Singing and liturgy promote communal worship. Preaching for too long leaves worshippers in their seats when the ritualized acts of worship are themselves symbols of pastoral care.
Holy Communion is good.
If the sacraments are an essential means of grace, then what better time than this service to provide a channel of God’s grace. Use The Great Thanksgiving from Advent or All Saints Day found in The Book of Worship. However I would caution you that this is an element of worship if you are planning a more low key service. If you’re looking for a service for the whole community where there will be lots of seekers, steer away from Holy Communion.
Candlelighting isn’t just for Catholics.
A very meaningful part of this service is to have a time where worshippers are invited to share in a liturgy (call and response or a congregational litany) and then light candles as a sign-act of the light of Christ coming into the darkness of mourning. This is a very meaningful act of worship for families, couples, or even individuals to participate in.
Prayer is essential.
I know this may be obvious, but emphasize prayer in this service. You can do this in a variety of ways and you should use different ways of praying. Consider corporate prayers, times of silent reflection, and responsive prayers.
You can find a sample order of worship for a Longest Night service by Nancy Townley here on Ministry Matters.
I can tell you from experience that including this service amid the hustle and bustle of your other Christmas services, rituals, parties, and obligations is a tremendous witness to those who are struggling in your community. It’s a witness to them that the Christ child comes as a sign of hope in the face of despair. And it’s a witness that their church is intentional about upholding members of the community in whatever season of life they may find themselves in.