The persistent reminders are saturating our eyes and ears in full force. This is a season – the season – of anticipation, joy and goodwill.
Some people just can’t get there.
Whether it’s an enduring sad holiday memory or a recent death, divorce, job loss, mental illness or family issue, many find the Christmas season something to survive.
So for the third year, All Saints Episcopal Church in Gastonia will welcome those whose suffering is heightened during the holidays. The “Blue Liturgy” or “Longest Night” service at 7 p.m. Dec. 19 has its own reminder: ‘Tis the season to be yourself.
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“The culture does not honor the fact that there is pain and grief and struggling and sorrow in this season of joy that we have come to try to push on people,” said the Rev. Gary Butterworth, rector at All Saints. “We can honor grief and sorrow in a season of joy because it’s wrapped around Christ, who suffered with us, who grieved with us.”
The longest-night title refers to the longest night of the calendar year, on Dec. 21, also a metaphorical reference to the “blue” feeling that many have during this season. The 45-minute service, which is open to everyone, includes hymns and prayers, one of which includes this passage: “God has promised to meet us here and to welcome us for who we are.”
Butterworth said the first two services have been very well received, starting with about 20 attendees in 2012 and another 10 or so last year.
“It’s not new in that nobody’s ever done it, but it’s new in that it hasn’t taken root within the church,” he says. “It’s not something that people expect the church to acknowledge.”
Parishioner Julia Madden said that “sometimes the darkness can just be the stress of the season.” She heard about a similar service from a friend who was a priest when she was living in Norfolk, Va., years ago, and recommended it for her own church at the time. She moved to Charlotte in 2008 and eventually mentioned the idea to Butterworth.
“It’s a great thing for the parish,” she says, “but it also offers a beacon of hope for the community or for people who are struggling. … “It’s no coincidence to me that December 21st is the feast day of Saint Thomas – who, as we all know, is doubting Thomas. He’s our ultimate hero” in giving us permission to question or doubt aspects of our lives related to God.
Madden, 54, even had a role in how the service is organized. “I can’t tell you how beautiful it is, just to walk in,” she says. “It’s so quiet. They try to set the tone with light. Lots of candlelight.”
Butterworth describes a signature rite in the service: “We bring in a manger, and when people come in we give them strips of cloth and black magic markers or pens and we ask them during periods of the service to think about what’s troubling them – their loss, their grief, their struggles – and to write them down.
“Then, at one point in the service, they’re asked to come forward and place the written pieces of cloth in the manger. Of course, Jesus is not there yet, because we celebrate Jesus’ coming on Christmas. The more powerful thing about this is that the manger stays in the worship space throughout the entire Christmas season. So those people who have come to us are with us throughout the entire Christmas season.”
He says that after people have come forward with their cloth strips, they are asked to go to a sand-filled bin and light a long, thin candle or taper – another act of remembrance.
A 31-year Navy veteran, Butterworth particularly identifies with military veterans and their families who struggle during this time of year. “What sticks with me is how the stranger who has come embraces me with tears. That’s the affirmation. So they’ve got a safe place to do that.”
He emphasizes that people’s sadness during the holidays is nothing to be embarrassed about, something that’s human and natural.
“Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we’re all searching. This is just another way to help in that search.”