This morning I was driving to the Dollar Tree to pick up some little Christmas gift bags for the children of City Church and I tried to remember the last time Christmas fell on a Sunday. I’d decided that it must have been 13 years ago, questioned if that math even worked, and agreed with…myself…that we must have skipped Sunday in a leap year because I simply have NO memory of Christmas EVER falling on a Sunday.
I assumed I’d remember it easily if it had happened because, at minimum, I’d remember the break from the norm, and at my best, I’d remember the tension we felt when discussing whether or not to attend church. I didn’t remember any of this, so my conclusion was that it must not have happened last time it should have.
After parking the car, I googled it.
Turns out, the last time Christmas fell on a Sunday was 2011, and before that, it was 2005. Just like clockwork. No leap year. Well, there are leap years involved but Christmas wasn’t moved off of a Sunday by a leap year, which is what I conjectured.
I racked my brain to remember what in the world we were doing in 2011 that made Christmas on a Sunday so unmemorable. Eventually, I put together that we were in Indiana with my family. Eliza was 6 months old, and it was the year my dad got a mandoline and my brother got a banjo. I remember that Christmas morning, but I don’t remember it as a Sunday. I don’t know how or why, but I do know we didn’t go to church.
I remember very little of 2005, which makes sense because it was 11 years ago and I was a recent college grad, living 600 miles away, unmarried, working at my church and dating one of the associate pastors. I’m certain I went to church with my family on Christmas Eve, as usual, but I’m sure I didn’t go to church that day because I don’t remember a disruption that year either.
I share all of that because without knowing that background, this next part might be easily dismissed as self-righteousness. Please hear me when I say that it’s not. I almost didn’t write this because I was afraid it would come across that way. I haven’t shared anything about this on social media for that reason. But today I decided that I think I can do this in a way that might be able to be heard. Consider this my invitation to hear me out.
Christmas falls on a Sunday every 5 or 6 years (trust me, it’s a leap year situation). While some traditions to hold services on Christmas no matter what day it falls on (something I learned from my Anglican friend), most Protestant churches don’t.
That means that most Protestant Christians only face the (apparent) tension of church on Christmas every 5 or 6 years. Stop and think about how much has happened in the last 5 years (since 2011). What about in the last 11 years, (back to 2005). A lot, I’m guessing.
My point is, I’m seeing and hearing Christians talk about, even joke about not going to church this Sunday, because it’s Christmas. Jon Acuff joked about it on twitter, giving a “shout out” to all the churches closing on Christmas morning to allow families to have their pastors back. He said that often adults who grew up with pastor-dads have trouble with their faith because it stole their father from them every year on Christmas.
This is problematic on several levels but I want to focus on the attitude that says that going to church on Christmas Sunday is a drag; that it’s a relief to not have to go.
Some of you may think I’m being overly dramatic here, or perhaps overly sensitive because my girls do, in fact, have a pastor dad. But I actually think the spectrum of responses to Christmas on Sunday reveals a lot about the current state of Christianity in America. I think it matters.
Liturgical traditions, like Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Catholics, hold the Christ Mass (and yes, that’s where we get the name) every year in following with the church calendar. Reformed Presbyterian traditions, like mine, don’t tend to follow the church calendar. We tend to focus more on weekly (Sabbath) worship, regardless of what time of year. For Christians in both traditions (and many others), when Christmas falls on a Sunday it should be a no-brainer. Either you worship because it’s the Christ Mass (and you’d worship whether it was a Tuesday or a Sunday) or you worship because it’s a Sunday. Both perspectives rightly place the emphasis on worship.
It’s 2016, not 2011 or 2005, and this year I am so excited for church on Sunday. I’m thankful for what God has done in the last 11 years to bring me here. Because I’m a pastor’s wife, it means that Duff and I have to plan ahead and decide how Christmas morning will go. It will be different than other Christmases. He’ll prepare for the service that morning as usual, and it might be inconvenient for him to stop to join us while the kids open a present. (That “inconvenience” is more like great joy, I could tell by the look in his eyes when we talked through it tonight.) He’ll leave around 9, and I’ll head to church at 10 with the kids in their PJs. Our service will be full of songs and readings, and I’m packing presents for each child in the church. Our kids are excited to watch their dad lead the service, as usual. I’m reading Mary’s Magnificat, and I’ve been given strict instructions to make it through without crying. I make no promises.
After church we’ll help tear down our service and wait for Duff to get home before opening the rest of the gifts. I don’t know when we’ll eat the cinnamon rolls and grits casserole we always have. I don’t know when we’ll eat the roast Duff is cooking or the winter salad I’m putting together. I’m excited about everything we’re giving our kids this year – that’s a whole other thing. But honestly I’m truly excited to go to church.
I’m writing this on Thursday, December 22nd. What am I expecting in sharing this now? Church leaders who closed their churches this Sunday aren’t likely to change plans. I’m not really going here for that reason. I’m primarily thinking about Christians who are able but not willing to attend church this Sunday, December 25th.
It occurred to me today that there may be people who just haven’t heard someone say, point blank, that it’s important to attend worship when Christmas falls on a Sunday.
If you’re “2011 Kristi” this year, I get it. I really do. I’m not trying to lay anything on thick here, I’m trying to speak up as your sister in Christ. To respond to what God has done in my life in the last 5 (11…okay 34) years by inviting you to do the same.
In that vein, here are some questions that might help you think through it all. They aren’t meant to be pointed, and I can assure you that I’m asking them because engaging with these topics has impacted my own perspective.
- How much of the history of Christmas do I know and understand? What does it mean, or change, to know that at some level our church fathers aligned the Christ Mass with pagan holidays, either to have their own celebration or maybe even to redeem the pagan festival days? What would those church fathers think if they knew that today, many Christians were forgoing the Christian traditions and celebrations, reverting back to prioritizing secular traditions instead?
- How much does family play a role in the decision to stay home or attend worship on Sunday? How might the metaphor of the church as the family begin to inform these decisions? What might your decision to skip church to be with your family mean to someone who doesn’t have one of their own? Throughout scripture God interacts with is people as a covenant family – how is that relevant here? What to verses like “he sets the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:6) and Luke 14:26 seem to imply about how seriously we should take the church as family?
- How has your own tradition/denomination played a role in your decision? Does your church hold a high view of church? What is church really for, anyway? Inspiration? Encouragement? Worship? Giving thanks?
- Many American Christians (not all) live in a great deal of comfort, wealth, and privilege. What might our brothers and sisters facing persecution for their faith say about the decision to stay home when church falls on a Sunday? What might you say if things are so different in 5-6 years that you’re included in the “persecuted church?” Would we be asking this question if we lived in the Middle East? If the church does not function as a refuge for us, how might our thoughts change if it becomes one?
- The word used for the church in the Bible gathering is ecclesia. It means the “called out ones.” While time with our family units (which may include more than those we share a home with) is good and should be prioritized, what is different or called out about us if we skip church on Christmas Sunday? In a world that is less and less connected in person, what does it say if we break the norm and leave our homes on Christmas Sunday and gather with people we can touch, sit next to, share an order of worship with, and pass the communion bread to?
I have plenty of friends involved in like-minded ministries who aren’t having services this week. There are some reasonable ways to end up there – like maybe the building you rent for your plant isn’t legally available because it’s a Sunday. I expect that we will have a small group at our church – we have a lot of families traveling, etc. One thing we learned early in our church plant, though, is that there is no group small enough to make worship NOT worth it. And believe me, we’ve had some awkwardly SMALL groups.