It’s called the most wonderful time of the year.
But for some, the joy of the Christmas season is overshadowed by pain, loss, depression and hurt.
To acknowledge that not everyone sees the season as merry and bright and to give them a place to be honest about their feelings, several South Georgia United Methodist Churches are hosting “Blue Christmas” services or a “Service of the Longest Night.”
Often scheduled on or around December 21 to correspond with the beginning of the winter solstice – the shortest and darkest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere and the longest night – these services are greatly needed, pastors say.
“There are a lot of people for whom the seasonal changes of light are just starting to correspond to what they feel on the inside all the time – gloomy and dark,” said Rev. Jimmy Asbell, senior pastor at Macon’s Vineville United Methodist Church. “This service is designed to be a place where we can be honest that things are not the way that we'd like them to be. It's in a season where people really want everyone to be jolly and merry, and there are a lot of things in our world that are not.”
Rev. Asbell has conducted a Service of the Longest Night for the past 14 years, at three different churches. It’s a more subdued service than those typically held at Christmastime; carols are sung in minor keys and prayer candles are lit. Holy Communion is served, after which attendees are invited to an informal coffee and dessert reception.
“The service is set up as evidence that God knows that all is not right in the world and that God is open to receive our loss and pain and grief,” Rev. Asbell said. “It’s been a meaningful service everywhere I’ve done it.”
For the second year, Richmond Hill United Methodist Church will host a “Blue Christmas” service. Held during their Dec. 23 candlelight Christmas Eve service, it includes a message of encouragement, candle lighting, and Holy Communion.
“For some people, the holiday season is difficult, usually due to a significant loss in their lives,” said Richmond Hill UMC pastor Dr. Glenn Martin. “(With this service) we try to give an opportunity to acknowledge that in the setting of the celebration itself.”
The season of Advent tends to be marked by pre-Christmas celebrations instead of preparation, longing and the anticipation of a coming savior, says Rev. Ben Gosden, associate pastor at Mulberry Street United Methodist Church in Macon.
“Too often, our worship life is centered on praise and not lament,” he said. “We don’t give people the proper space to come and cry out to God.”
The church will host a Service of the Longest Night on Sunday, Dec. 22. Such services are needed throughout the year, not just once during Advent, Rev. Gosden said, but one is a good start.
“This is really a very tough time of year for many people,” he said. “Studies have continued to show that at this time of year, depression rates go up, suicide rates go up, and the nights grow long. And in many ways, all of our nonstop celebrating can compound the struggles that people have.”
The service, he said, is more in line with the actual theme of Advent than some that are more traditional.
“The theme of speaking to a people who live in darkness that a light is coming, that hope is promised to them against all odds, that’s the theme of Advent,” he said. “You can’t speak of hope without being honest about the hopelessness that exists. You can’t speak of a savior without acknowledging that the world needs saving.”
The services aren’t just for those who are grieving or have recently experienced loss. They are also a time for the community of faith to surround those who are hurting and share the love of Christ.
“(The Service of the Longest Night) gives us a chance to reach out and invite them to the service,” Rev. Asbell said. “It gives us a chance to sit with them in a place of quiet and pray and sing and say, ‘I am here to help carry your concerns.’ That’s who we are as a community – we celebrate when things are great with each other … and when things don’t work out we’re here too.”
Pain, suffering, grief and loss go hand-in-hand with being human, Rev. Gosden said.
“They are part of the human condition and we can’t pretend that they are some failure of us. It’s a part of what it means to be human. What more appropriate time than in this season of the year when we talk about God taking on the human condition to celebrate the fullness of it?”
For a full Service of the Longest Night Order of Worship, courtesy of Rev. Ben Gosden, click here.