The Christmas Eve service was beautiful last night. Lights were twinkling, carols were playing, candles were burning, people were singing and smiling and laughing and hugging and wishing each other a Merry Christmas. Excited children crowded to the front when the pastor told the children’s story. The service ended with Communion and the traditional singing of “Silent Night” as candlelight passed from person to person until the whole sanctuary was alight with it. But something was missing.
As we entered the building, I saw a table in front of the door to the sanctuary. The first thing that caught my eye was a basket full of tiny cups the size and shape of the cups that hold coffee creamer in restaurants.
“What are these for?” I said.
“Those are for Communion,” said my mother-in-law. This was her home church, so she had seen them before. “That’s your bread and wine.”
“Okay,” I said, taking one tentatively.
We were early, so once we were seated, I had plenty of time to examine my little cup. It was a layered affair. On top was a Communion wafer covered by a thin sheet of plastic. There was a pull tab for easy opening. The cup itself contained a tiny swallow of wine, and the cup was covered by foil with another easy opening pull tab.
I love Communion. I love the time of meditation while music plays quietly in the background, time to commune with God and remember the sacrifice represented by the bread and wine. I also love the connection with other believers. I’ve been served Communion in a number of ways, and there was always a connection. I’ve knelt at a Communion rail and received the wafer and cup while the minister offered words of blessing from church liturgy. I’ve broken off a bit of bread and dipped it into a cup as the pastor or lay leader offered words of personal blessing. I’ve sat in a pew as we served one another from plates of crackers and juice. But until last night I’ve never taken part in a self-serve Communion.
There were close to 2,000 people in the sanctuary. Serving Communion to that many people requires a lot of preparation, organization, and coordination, and the new cups certainly simplified and sped up the process. In fact, it was over almost before the crackle of plastic and foil lids died away. But I missed the time of quiet reflection while others filed to the front or passed the plates, and I missed the connection I usually feel.
When we came in earlier, there was also a pile of white candles in plastic cup-like holders on the table by the door. I knew what these were for, even though the holders were a little different. The first time I held one of these candles on Christmas Eve, it was surrounded by a paper collar designed to catch any dripping wax and prevent burned hands or stained carpets. These new cups served the same purpose, but like the Communion cups, they were new and improved and designed for efficiency. The first time I participated in this ritual, I was in a small church pastured by my brother Jim. As the service closed, we formed a circle around the walls of the sanctuary. Jim instructed us to share our light and our Christmas blessings with each other, and then he lit the candle of the person to his right and to his left. As the flame traveled around the circle, you could hear whispers of Merry Christmas, God bless you, I love you. It felt like a truly Holy Night, and I felt like a Who that had learned that Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Since then, the candle lighting has become one of my favorite parts of Christmas, but last night, something was missing.
The pastor began by lighting his candle and, like Jim, instructing us to share our light with each other, but he didn’t mention a Christmas blessing. Instead he added instructions to be sure the unlit candle tilted toward the lit candle and not the other way around. The light passed from pastor to deacon to congregation, and the sanctuary was soon alight with the traditional glow, but it felt like we were focusing a little more on the process than the meaning. When we reached the end of “Silent Night,” the pastor closed with prayer, wished us all a Merry Christmas. Then he asked us all to deposit our Communion cups and burned candles in the receptacles at the exits to avoid leaving a mess for the maintenance staff to clean up. Maybe that was what was missing – the mess.
Life is messy. We come into this world through the messy process of birth, and we end our lives, if not in a physically messy way, at least in a messy tangle of bureaucratic red tape. We live life moving from one messy situation to another, but the lives that mean the most are the ones that connect with others in a meaningful way, somehow sharing the messiness and figuring out how to deal with it. When Jesus came to earth, He joined us in our messiness. He was born in a stable, surrounded by messy animals and shepherds. He ministered to messy people; touched messy, disgusting lepers; restored sight with mud and spit; ate with sinners; talked with Samaritans; healed on the Sabbath; loved the unlovable.
I don’t usually make resolutions, because I’m not very good at keeping them. But this year, I think I’ll resolve to be a little messier. I think I’ll take the time to connect with others, even if it takes more time and isn’t as convenient. I think I’ll share my light and my blessings, even if it means a few stains on the carpet. I think I’ll start off the new year by asking God to “bless this mess,” and I think when I look back on the year next December, I’ll find that He did.
Here’s wishing you and yours a happy, healthy, blessed, messy New Year.