Nine years ago we did something unexpected and, to many, unwelcome. We moved Christmas off campus. We decided to end the annual exercise in dysfunction and disappointment that was our Christmas Eve. The plan was to relocate our celebration in a setting that could accommodate our parishioners and allow us to welcome the visitors and new comers who actually want to come to church that evening. We went to the Exhibition Hall at the Maryland State Fair. That first year we had just over 1,000 seats. Despite the naysayers, we mostly filled them.
In the intervening years the tradition has become well established, and it has grown. This year we had 4,100 seats (several hundred more than last year) and they were mostly all filled at our second Mass; the first Mass was standing room only. Hundreds also joined us online for both services.
But it’s not about how many people showed up, encouraging as that is. It’s about stepping out of our congregation and into the community. It’s about welcoming our community for a Christmas celebration that invites them to take a fresh look at the whole message of the Gospel. It’s about showing people next steps they can take in a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.
Of course it is only possible with a lot of effort, and nearly everything was done by volunteers. Our “Ops” ministers worked many shifts over several days to literally move our church, at least everything that was moveable, up York Road (and, after Christmas, back again). Then it was a question of cleaning up the Cow Palace, setting it up and decorating. Next came the musical and program rehearsals and the tech run-throughs, with many dozen more people involved.
On Christmas Eve hundreds of volunteer ministers were needed to greet and seat our guests, run the tech, host the kids programs, and provide organization and hospitality behind the scenes for the ministers themselves. There were the Eucharistic ministers, ushers and other kinds of ministers too, and lets not forget the people out in the cold who parked the cars. They were indispensible in making the evening happen in any kind of coherent manner. They were also key in another way: they created the first impression our visitors formed of our church.
I also am thinking with gratitude of the many, many parishioners who actually went to the effort of inviting un-churched family and friends: that’s where it all begins.
Finally of course, I thank our wonderful church staff and ministry leaders who made the evening seemingly effortless (which it was not) and flawless (which it was). Their commitment to our mission and dedication to excellence is without peer.
God’s blessings to all involved who gave us Christmas Eve 2013.