a worship as you go service
Christmas, in our culture, is often boiled down and flattened into one emotion: good cheer. Our public spaces–in malls, music, grocery stores–glimmer with mandatory happiness. We know that happiness, flattened into the only acceptable emotion, is not happiness at all but numbness, a raw denial of our grief, shame, and loss. At Christmas, we can feel a pressure to hide our loneliness and sadness and “be of good cheer” 24/7 through the month of December.
The Longest Night service is a Christian response to this flattening of Christmas. It is a ritual that assures us happiness can be accompanied by grief, contentment by uneasiness, comfort by loss. Our uncomfortable emotions are not threats, but sacred truths. They can be set on the mantle alongside our good cheer. Joy, hope, love, and peace will shine brighter when they hold grief, unease, loss, and sorrow. The Longest Night is also a way of honoring the natural rhythms of the world God gave us, acknowledging the Solstice on Dec. 21. This shortest day and longest night is a sacred space. Entering our own dark caverns, acknowledging our grief and loss, is a sacred practice. In this longest stretch of darkness, in this pause of sunlight, God is present. This worship-as-you-go service is an honoring of the way lightness and darkness are interdependent, not opposites but companions. The day honors the darkness with shadows; the night honors the light in the stars. We, living in the day and in the night, can find holiness in both. Christmas is not about covering up our pain and grief, but of finding hope and healing even in our mourning.
Because this service is about honoring our whole selves and depth of emotion, we invite you to pace yourself in this space. Use the practices below in the ways that fit your time and space. If you come to an item, and don’t have the tools or need to skip it, in its place, take a deep breath and move on.
There are a few tools that may be helpful in this service. We invite you to begin by gathering these items:
or small light
perfume, cologne, spice, incense etc.
Light your candle, or turn on your small light, as a symbol of the light that shines even on the longest and darkest night of the year.
Loreena McKennitt - In the Bleak Midwinter
You may be experiencing this service alone, but you will be joined in the experience by dozens of others, from Michigan, across the United States, and even the world, who are in this worship experience with you and holding you through it. Say a prayer for the friends and strangers who are worshipping with you, at a distance, together.
I myself shall go before you, I shall level the heights, I shall shatter the bronze gateways, I shall smash the iron bars. I shall give you secret treasures and hidden hoards of wealth, so that you will know that I am Yahweh, who call you by your name, the God of Israel. It is for the sake of Leah and Rachael and Jacob, and of Israel my chosen one, that I have called you by your name, have given you a title though you do not know me. I am Yahweh, and there is no other, there is no other God except me. Though you do not know me, I have armed you so that it may be known from east to west that there is no one except me. I am Yahweh, and there is no other, I form the light and I create the darkness, I make well-being, and I create disaster, I, Yahweh, do all these things.
One of our gifted artists at Shalom, Laura M., works in the medium of clay. She has created several finger labyrinths for individuals. A labyrinth is an ancient Christian prayer practice, a “walking prayer,” designed especially as a way to hold and release complex questions you are struggling with. As you enter the labyrinth, you carry a question, following the path in front of you. When you reach the center of the labyrinth, you release the question, and return on the same part outward. The labyrinth below is a simple one you can trace with your finger. Do this labyrinth as many times as you’d like.
Take a deep breath. Remember the fragrant smell you prepared at the beginning of this time. Pick up that fragrant item and breath in its sweet smell. The gifts the Magi brought to Jesus were sweet-smelling items. They honored the depth of bodied experience. The frankincense and myrrh are gifts for the incarnate, for the flesh, for those with flawed and beautiful bodies. Notice in this moment how your body feels. Where do you feel settled, or calm? Where do you feel a twinge of tightness? Take another deep breath and continue on.
At Christmastime, we’re often inundated with peaceful nativity scenes, where “all is calm, all is bright.” But we know the drafty stable was not all peace–it was also filled with the pain and mess of birth; the earthy enlivening smell of hay; the warm and musky bodies of cows, donkeys, doves; the inharmonious bleating of sheep and the ill-dressed, rugged shepherds. As you scroll through these images, take note of the feelings each one evokes for you.
Melissa Etheridge’s “O Night Divine.”
Listen to this version of queer musician Melissa Etheridge’s “O Night Divine.” She describes loving the song, growing up in a Methodist church and singing in the choir–often in the back row. She never got to sing “O Night Divine” because “it was for the sopranos.” When she created a Christmas album, she took the old favorite song and rewrote it to emphasize the darkness and holiness of that night. She adds, of her writing process, “Just remember, no matter what they tell you, you can sing whatever song you want to sing.”
This is a long-ish song, 7 minutes. You may wish to go back through the image gallery or sit quietly and listen.
Very slowly burning, the big forest tree
stands in the slight hollow of the snow
melted around it by the mild, long
heat of its being and its will to be
root, trunk, branch, leaf, and know
earth dark, sun light, wind touch, bird song.
Rootless and restless and warmblooded, we
blaze in the flare that blinds us to that slow,
tall, fraternal fire of life as strong
now as in the seedling two centuries ago.
~ Ursula K. Le Guin, Late in the Day: Poems 2010-2014
(PM Press, 2016).
“A reminder to remember: just because the sharpness of the sadness has faded does not mean that it was not, once, terrible. It means only that time and space, creatures of infinite girth and tenderness, have stepped between the two of you, and they are keeping you safe as they were once unable to.” ― Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House