Every year, for as long as I can remember, we’ve gone to my grandparents’ Lutheran church for their candlelight Christmas Eve service.
This was the first Christmas Eve on record that my family didn’t go to church.
I wasn’t happy about it. I love lighting the candles, watching their tiny flames flickering in the dark. I love singing “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger” as my grandma and sister harmonize beside me. I love the peace, the joy and watching the bright flickers of light spread across the church.
And this year, I wanted Christmas Eve to be extra special. Lately, I’ve been taking time to learn about different Christian practices and traditions … tapping into the deep, rich history of the church and the spiritual disciplines that have been helping people feel closer to God for centuries. I’m only just beginning to scratch the surface.
As part of that, I’d decided I was going to prepare for Christmas by not eating any sweets in the week leading up to Christmas. (To be honest, this decision was only very loosely based on any existing church practice. It was probably more good intentions than proven spiritual practice.) But I liked the idea of preparing for Christmas Eve by giving us foods I really liked, to take my focus off eating sweets and to prepare for Christmas and the story of Christ’s birth.
Maybe — I thought — when I sat next to grandma in the church pew, I would hear the Scripture with new ears. Perhaps my preparation, giving up the sweets I loved so much, would help me understand, feel and experience it all on a deeper level.
And then my dad dropped a bombshell during (my meat and sweets-free) dinner on Christmas Eve: We weren’t going to church this year.
I wasn’t happy. What did he mean we were skipping church on Christmas Eve?! Didn’t he know how important it was? (And how much peppermint bark I’d turned down this past week?) How could we just give that up?
But here’s the thing. My grandpa has been sick for a while now. It’s been getting worse. He’d just gotten home from the hospital THAT MORNING, and my grandma was still hosting Christmas Eve by 4:30p.m.
Grandpa wasn’t feeling good enough to get out of bed. Grandma didn’t want to leave him. So we could all go to church without them, or we could stay home and spend Christmas Eve with our grandparents.
Here’s the thing: If Jesus would have been asked to make that decision: to attend a worship service or to spend time with ailing family members, I have no doubt which one he’d choose.
So why was I so ready to put religious practice and tradition over family, community and relationships?
To be clear, I don’t mean to knock spiritual disciplines. As much as I love my Protestant upbringing, I’ve been realizing what a loss it is to be raised without disciplines and traditions.
How in our Protestant fervor for (at the time, much-needed) reform, we sort of threw the baby out with the bath water. And how there’s a lot of beauty in prayer, confession, daily Scripture reading, fasting … things I usually avoided for fear of them becoming wrote, empty items on a spiritual to-do list: more draining than life-giving.
And while I’ve experienced so much beauty in these things lately — and it seems such a shame to be only discovering that beauty now — Christmas Eve was a slap-in-the-face reminder of what happens when we prioritize practices over people. When we let tradition steal the joy and community of Christ’s heart.
In my determination to experience God more deeply, I was about to turn my back on community and the relationships that matter most.
So yes, I could give up going to church this Christmas Eve to spend time with my grandpa.
Plus, you don’t need a church, a minister and a bunch of little candles to celebrate the birth of Christ. At my brother’s suggestion, we all crowded into grandpa’s bedroom and read the Christmas story together.
In the dark room, by the light of a cell phone screen, we read it all: from Gabriel’s announcement of John’s coming birth to Anna’s temple proclamation.
We passed around my brother’s iPhone 6 S+, each reading a chapter out loud.
That memory — reading the words of the Christmas story together, all gathered around my grandpa — is something we will all remember. No candles, minister or hymnal needed.
After the story was done, we sang “Away in a Manger,” my grandma and sister harmonizing next to me, my grandpa leading loud and clear as we started off on the final verse.
All my well-intentioned preparation for Christmas didn’t end in the way I thought it would, but maybe that’s the point.
My goal had been to try to open my ears and eyes to understand Christ’s birth more deeply than I had before. And while I want to kept doing that — exploring spiritual disciplines and seeking after God in new ways — I never want practice to distract me from the heart of Jesus.
So that will be the tension. Valuing practices but not getting so caught up that I lose the purpose behind them.
I’m not there yet. But its definitely the direction I want to be heading.