By SARA ARTHURS
Christmas takes on a different meaning for pastors than the rest of us.
The Rev. Michael Wise, lead pastor at StoneBridge Church, said on this one night, “a baby came — and everything changed.” Now, through sermons, through music and through visual storytelling, churches determine how to “tell those stories again and again.”
This year, Wise is preaching on the book of Matthew. In the section before Jesus’ birth, Matthew outlines the genealogy of Jesus’ ancestors.
These were “characters who — if they were in your family tree — you wouldn’t mention them,” Wise said. But Matthew points out that these people with “shady” pasts are part of the story — and that Jesus came not only for sinners, but from sinners, he said.
“The story of Christmas is that we’re all candidates for grace,” Wise said.
The Rev. Bob Cochran, pastor at First Lutheran Church, said he used to be tempted, in his sermon, to speak to those in attendance who only come to church on Christmas. But he realized this was letting down the regular attendees.
“What they really want is the joy and the awe of Christmas,” he said. The candles and music “transport us out of our everyday world.”
“So much of worship is about music, setting, the closeness of God,” Cochran said.
That, he said, is what he wants people to experience at Christmas.
The point of Christmas is “God came to Earth. God appeared, and God walked among us,” he said.
The Rev. John Drymon, rector at Trinity Episcopal Church, said “I always like to focus during the Christmas season on the mystery of the incarnation.” That is, “God coming to dwell among us” calls us all to participate in “making this world like the Kingdom of God.”
Drymon said Christmastime is “an affirmation that — despite the fallen nature of creation” — God, who deemed that creation good, “means to bring that same creation to its perfection,” even becoming a part of it.
And he said it’s a reminder that none of us as humans are “center stage” in this story.
“The center of that stage play is Christ Jesus himself,” as a child in a manger, and as a man on the cross, he said. “And we are extras in that play.”
The Rev. Dan Metzger, pastor at St. Marks United Methodist Church, said he loves the Advent season leading up to Christmas. A pastor for 13 years, he said what really changed Christmas for him was when, a couple of years ago, he visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and got to visit the fields of the shepherds in the Christmas story.
For Metzger, Christmas is a time “when I remember that God has come close to us. … There’s something beautiful and comforting to me about knowing that God is not far off.”
It can be a difficult time for many parishioners. Cochran said he does probably half of his pastoral counseling at the end of the year, such as talking to people who have lost a spouse or a child. He said Christmas makes people reflect on past Christmases, and perhaps people they have lost. “I see it as a healthy thing,” he said.
Cochran said Christmas differs from Easter in that there is a secular component to Christmas.
“We don’t see it as a conflict, though,” he said.
He said he was into presents and Santa as a child. “God is love,” and there’s a lot of love in the secular aspects of Christmas, he said. He said materialism can be an issue, but “What I remember was a lot of love around Christmastime.”
“I think we don’t give God enough credit,” Cochran said. He said people get awed by the Christmas lights and “the Holy Spirit breaks through.”
Metzger said he enjoys the secular aspects of the season, including Christmas songs. And he and his wife do “Elf on the Shelf” with their children. He believes the secular aspects are fine “as long as it’s adding to, and not replacing,” the religious aspects of Christmas.
Wise has heard some churches dislike Halloween. But he grew up with a pastor father who dressed like Dracula and created a “haunted church.” The point, he said, was how to be the “best neighbor to our community.”
Wise said his family “knew Jesus was the reason for the season.” But, he said, other people may celebrate the more secular aspects of Christmas but not Jesus. He said he lives in a world with people who view Christmas differently, “and I want to meet them there” — and, he said, maybe share some eggnog.
And Wise pointed out that when people say writing “Xmas” is taking “Christ” out of “Christmas,” this is a misunderstanding — because in fact the “X” represents what, in Greek, was “the first letter in the name of Christ,” so it is a symbol for Christ.
Wise said the biggest challenge for pastors is to “stop working and enjoy the season.”
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