In many churches, the evening service on Advent 4 takes the form of 'lessons and carols' or 'carols by candlelight' and it is a warm, upbeat, nostalgic, sometimes evangelistic, hopefully missional and community welcoming, experience.
The model here has been ecumenical and choral - combined choirs from local churches and a children's choir from the school where our choir-leader teaches and a 'lessons and carols' format of traditional and contemporary readings. For all sorts of reasons, that isn't feasible this year, and yesterday I met with A to think about what we might offer instead this year.
From the muddle of books in my still-being-sorted study, I took along 'Doing December Differently', a book I bought many moons ago (it sat on my bookcase in Dibley) and from this emerged the germ of an idea which we have developed into "A Quiet Christmas - Reading and Songs for those who will find Christmas difficult this year"
So many people we know and love are approaching Christmas recently bereaved or having faced significant personal or familial challenges and life events. The physical work of packing up and clearing out our building has taken its toll. Whilst we need, and will offer, promises of hope, what we don't need, and won't offer is glib sentimentality or gaudy jollity.
Here's one of the poems we aren't using on the service, which shows how honesty and authenticity and hope and joy and tears and laughter can co-exist...
Let the bells jingle but make time for tears to fall.
Eat, drink and be merry but do not go hungry in that inner place.
Rest, reflect and remember, Be true to yourself.
Many of us can't play happy families at this time of year.
December is for a difficult diagnosis as well as dreaming of a white Christmas
December is for divorce as well as decorations.
December is for death and dying as well as discos and dancing.
December is for distances that separate us from people,
even those in the same room.
Disappointment in December is especially hard to bear.
Sometimes the light no longer shines in the darkness.
The desolation swallows us up and we die a little.
Yet a kindly word, a bird in flight, a tree alive with hips and hoars
can drown out despair and kindle determination to move on.
Dig down deeper than the tinsel to the place where hope is found.
Maybe, just maybe, the flickering flame will be fanned gentle into fire.
Helen Jesty Doing December Differently pub. Wildgoose Publications, 2006, page 32