"Now is the earth a dreary place,
A troubled place, a weary place.
Peace has hidden her lovely face
And turned in tears away.
Yet the sun, through the war-cloud, sees
Babies asleep on their mother’s knees.
While there are love and home—and these—
There shall be Christmas Day."
—Alfred Joyce Kilmer, "Wartime Christmas"
Written very shortly before his death in WWI and on the cusp of a pandemic, Kilmer's poem likely has resonances for many of us engaged in developing church programming for the Advent and Christmas seasons.
In particular, feeling the responsibility to make these seasons full of joy, wonder, and hope for our congregations' youngest members can be extremely daunting. But there are ways to achieve these and other important goals, even if our celebrations look different than any other year in memory.
Even before planning new ways of celebrating the birth of Christ this year, it is important for faith formation professionals to normalize that the children and the congregation as a whole will be going through a process of mourning for the traditions they won't be able to participate in this year.
Once the sadness and mourning have been normalized, the planning time begins. Though I can't give an exact recipe to meet every congregation’s unique needs, there are basic principles that are transferable to a wide variety of contexts:
- Find out what knowledge deficits congregants across the age spectrum hold regarding Advent and Christmas, and focus on filling a couple of those, rather than trying to have a different theme every week.
- Be honest and name what you're feeling in this difficult time and invite others to do so as well. Lean into Advent not just as a time of waiting, but as a time of mourning.
- Consider tightening your focus for Christmas only to the biblical events of Christmas Eve/Day (much of "traditional" Christmas programming attempts to tell the story all the way from the census to just before the slaughter of the innocents), or to the telling in a single gospel.
- Go lower tech. Resist the urge to think fancier tech equals richer experiences. Embrace the beauty of reading scripture under the stars, of standing in a parking lot and singing, of walking through a neighborhood and praying at each candle in a window. Don't be afraid to come together through simple phone calls or social media posts.
- Prioritize wonder. Kilmer notes that, wherever there are babies asleep on mother's knees, there is Christmas Day. As much as possible, assist your congregation in encountering the Christ child as a perfectly ordinary and thoroughly exceptional answer to the sickness and violence of the world. Do not be afraid to engage as many senses as possible as you invite them into the Advent and Christmas experiences.
As you step into your planning for this holy time, it is my hope that you are able to approach it with anxiety at a minimum, and with excitement, hope, and expectation that God will show up at the center of your work.