For another perspective on Christmas Sunday services, read “Why Our Church Canceled Christmas Day Services” by Fletcher Lang.
“Why do we have to go to church today?” I whined the question to my mom and dad as I laced up my new rollerblades and eyed the freshly unwrapped hockey stick in the corner. As it will this year, Christmas fell on a Sunday when I was seven. Against my protests, we went to church that morning. In retrospect, I’m thankful we did.
To be clear, I’m not here to rail against churches who will cancel their services on Christmas Sunday. Some churches can count their families on two hands and know for a fact everyone will be out of town on Christmas. Others want to give their volunteers and employees the morning to recover from the previous night’s candlelight service. My words are only meant to explain our church’s rationale and offer parents some helpful thoughts as they explain to their kids why they’re going to church on Christmas Day.
The Point of Church
To understand why we go to church on Christmas, we have to understand why we go to church in the first place. The answer to this question cuts against the grain of our consumer culture, which is especially on display this time of year. As we wander through the mall, see ads pop up on our screens, and browse the aisles of Target, we’re sold a bill of goods. Marketers tell us what this product or that service can do for us—how it will make our lives easier, more fun, and more comfortable.
Sellers don’t just hawk products, they sell us an anthropology. If we come to understand ourselves as homo consumens, “man as consumer,” our souls will be empty, but so will be the shelves at the store, and that’s a trade the advertisers are willing to make. With such a view of humanity constantly reinforced, it’s easy to see the church service as just another service being offered to us, a religious product meant to better our lives. But what happens at church isn’t centered on us, it’s centered on God. Going to church when it’s inconvenient is a good reminder of that fact.
To understand why we go to church on Christmas, we have to understand why we go to church in the first place.
In our weekly worship service, we do just that: we worship—giving God his worth, offering to him sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. To be sure, we get things out of church—comfort, teaching, fellowship—but the audience for worship is God, not us. Why do we go to church? It’s hard to improve upon the Book of Common Prayer here:
We have come together in the presence of Almighty God our heavenly Father, to set forth his praise, to hear his holy Word, and to ask, for ourselves and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation.
Will I feel like waking up early on Christmas this year to go over my sermon? I like to think so, but perhaps not. Did I feel like going to church on Christmas Day as a child? Not really. Neither may you, and neither may your kids. But at Christmastime, above all seasons, it’s important to remind ourselves of who we are: homo adorans, “man as worshiper.” When we understand ourselves rightly, we understand church rightly, and vice versa.
The Point of Christmas
Going to church on Christmas reminds us not only of the point of church but also of the point of Christmas. It’s easy to get distracted this time of year. The parties, the decorations, the presents: sensory overload can numb us to the occasion for the festivities.
The accoutrements themselves are not the problem. To the contrary, if seen in the right light, the pomp of Christmas serves as a joyous pointer to the birth of Christ. The problem isn’t with the pointers but with us. I love C. S. Lewis’s illustration:
You will have noticed that most dogs cannot understand pointing. You point to a bit of food on the floor; the dog, instead of looking at the floor, sniffs at your finger. A finger is a finger to him, and that is all. His world is all fact and no meaning.
How often we can be like Lewis’s dog at Christmas—marveling at the new TV, savoring the homemade eggnog, and yet failing to revel in the present behind the presents: the incarnation of the Son of God. Going to church on Christmas contextualizes the season for us.
If seen in the right light, the pomp of Christmas serves as a joyous pointer to the birth of Christ. The problem isn’t with the pointers but with us.
Each Sunday in my church, a deacon reads the appointed Gospel lesson from the center of the sanctuary. It’s a tactile reminder of exactly what we’re celebrating at Christmas. Jesus announced the good news of the kingdom not from a distance but on the ground, in flesh, among his people. Not counting equality with God a thing to be grasped, Jesus stepped down from his rightful throne in heaven. He came among us, eating with tax collectors and sinners. He came not to be served but to serve—Jesus, the true deacon. We go to church to hear the voice of Christ announce good news. Christ’s voice pierces through the cacophony of holiday activity. His words reshape and reorient the festivities, giving new definition and meaning to our mirth.
When I got home from church in 1994, I found my hockey stick right where I left it. I have no memory of connecting that particular present with the gift of the gospel. And yet, I have no doubt that the year-in-year-out faithfulness of my parents, taking me to church even when I didn’t feel like it, helped me understand the meaning of both church and Christmas. That’s why our church is having Christmas Day services.