Longest Night Service

In recent years many Christian churches have been hosting “Longest Night” services. They are sometimes called “Blue Christmas” or “Empty Manger” services, but I’ll go high church enough to prefer the sound of “The Longest Night” service.

Winter Solstice image from NOAA
For the scientifically minded

Literally, the longest night is also, go figure, the shortest day of the year and usually falls around Dec. 21. The Longest Night services recognize this long night as an opportunity to reach out to those who are in grief in the midst of the holiday season. Writer Nancy Townley says such a service “acknowledges that, for many people, Christmas is a time of loneliness, sorrow, alienation, sadness. This service offers a way for people to claim those feelings and still feel surrounded by the compassionate love of God.”

Advent Wreath

That the longest night falls in the Advent season seems appropriate. Although Advent gets lost a bit it the midst of Christmas activities, it is really a time to prepare ourselves for the hope that Christ brings to the world. Although we reflect on it knowing where it leads, it is important to recognize that Advent is about waiting for the coming hope. We like to jump ahead to the happy ending seen in the birth of Christ, but Advent calls on us to reflect how people were waiting for the savior. They were in grief for all they had lost, but they had hope in God’s promise. As my priest said today, it is our time in the desert where we are invited be quiet and contemplative, focusing on the coming promise of God.

A Longest Night service allows those in grief to put away the need to “act happy” during Christmas and to acknowledge the sorrow that we experience. However, and here is where the Christian response to grief can differ from someone with no faith, we acknowledge that sorrow with the hope found in the Advent season for God’s gift to us. His son, who will suffer and die, who will know grief and sorrow, and who will then break the cycle of death in the resurrection. Our sorrow is not without hope. It is not less sorrowful than other people’s sorrow, but it is imbued with advental hope.

I have never taken part in such a service, but I hope to this year. PBS did a 5-minute piece on such a service ten years ago, and it helps show how this can work. The Rev. Dr. Stacy Smith  wrote a good piece on these services and the previously cited article by Nancy Townley even offers suggested prayers, scripture readings, and carols (note: “Jingle Bells” is not a good fit).

Where to attend a service
My own parish does not offer such a service, but if you are in the Holland, Michigan area here are few options over the next couple of weeks. I’m hoping to attend at least a couple of them. If I missed any just add that in the comments!

Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019
Blue Christmas Service
3:00 pm
First Reformed Church of Holland

Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019
The Longest Night Service
6:30 pm
Calvary Church

Thursday Dec 19, 2019
The Longest Night Service
7:00 pm
First Congregational Church of Saugatuck

Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019
Blue Christmas Service
7:00 pm
Holland United Church of Christ at the Holland Civic Center

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