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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Blue Christmas illustration. - Photo by Nikki Dawes

Candlelight dotted the sanctuary of Community Christian Church in Maumelle on Thursday, and amid gentle piano music and solemn chanting the St. Nicholas Episcopal Church congregation gathered for the reflective, subdued service in Christianity known as Blue Christmas.

Blue Christmas services -- also known as Longest Night services, because many are held in the evening on the winter solstice -- are meant for those who have been affected by loss, trauma, divorce or other circumstances that make it difficult or impossible to embrace the merriment and cheer of the holidays with those around them.

"The Blue Christmas service is about creating a place and a time to give people permission to gather in quiet ... so that we're communing in this [together], not by ourselves," said the Rev. Marna Franson, St. Nicholas' pastor. "It's about creating a place where we can say, 'This sucks, this is awful, and it's hard and it hurts.'"

The service isn't widely conducted, but has gained some traction among Christian churches in Arkansas. Thursday's was the third Blue Christmas service Franson has conducted at Community Christian, with which St. Nicholas has had a rental agreement for 10 years. And while Franson said the St. Nicholas service has a lower record of attendance than its regular worship services, past attendees have said the service has brought them comfort.

A TIME OF HOPE

The Rev. Marie Mainard O'Connell, pastor of Park Hill Presbyterian Church in North Little Rock, said Advent -- which begins four Sundays before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve each year -- has shifted from being a season of repentance and penitence similar to Lent, to being a time of hope.

Combined with "the force of consumer culture weighing on Christianity," Mainard O'Connell said it was leaving out those "who weren't feeling holly-jolly ... and in fact even exacerbating those feelings."

"Just kind of recognizing what the individuals in my church have been going through in the last year by virtue of being their pastor, I [thought] it would be pastorally appropriate to acknowledge the blue note of this event ... to say that a piece of why it is appropriate in Advent to acknowledge the sadness, the suffering, the despair of the world is because that is actually why Christ came, and Christ is the reason for the season."

The Rev. Ruskin Falls of Pulaski Heights Presbyterian Church in Little Rock said that cheer during the Advent season is meant to be a deeper form of cheer that embraces the Nativity story, and referred to "Magnificat" -- Mary's Song, from the Gospel of Luke -- in which the Virgin Mary praises the Lord.

"[The Magnificat] is about recognizing the tragedy and the poverty and the suffering and all that haunts us, and Christmas is about God coming into that and actually not putting an end to that," Falls said. "The fact that we are talking about a kingdom of God [in which] somehow Jesus brings God into the world and yet nothing changed -- it's all still pretty tragic.

"I think it's a failure of the church to meet people where Christmas actually is with the Nativity story ... where God's heart becoming human flesh is intended to meet us."

Pulaski Heights does not hold a Blue Christmas service, Falls said, and no church members have requested the service, but he has been told by people who have attended a service that it was meaningful to them.

"It really was because they felt that their lives -- with some loss or some trouble, some woes that they were in the midst of -- that that excluded them from Christmas," Falls said. "And I think that's horrible. I thought, 'You know, if Christmas has to be something that you can't celebrate when you're down and out, then we're not reading the Christmas story very well."

WORLD IN DARKNESS

Franson and Mainard O'Connell both have references to John 1 during their Blue Christmas services -- the Scripture which begins, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

"It's Christmas gospel," Franson said, "but it's not the Bethlehem story."

Mainard O'Connell said she felt that John 1 reached back to people's understanding of the world in darkness, before the Big Bang.

"Everything was black and then suddenly there was light, and I feel like that's a really good, 10,000-foot overview," Mainard O'Connell said. "When our personal situation feels messy and out of control, and perhaps even scary ... taking the grand view can be comforting."

The Blue Christmas service at Park Hill will partly take on a Lessons and Carols format, with a chance for attendees to receive a blessing or place a stone in the church's baptismal font in silent reflection. And instead of the traditional evening service, the church's Blue Christmas liturgy will take place as part of the church's worship service on Sunday morning -- which will help the church's older members, some of whom Mainard O'Connell said might be uncomfortable driving at night, or anyone with limited mobility who is feeling blue but doesn't want to take a risk by attending a nighttime service.

The Rev. Anne Russ of First Presbyterian Church in North Little Rock tried out a new platform for this year's service -- hosting a Facebook Live service on her Doubting Believers page. It was a way, Russ said, to reach people who aren't able to find a Blue Christmas service in their area, and so that people who know First Presbyterian through Facebook in several other states can tune in.

"I think the most important thing is just that [the Blue Christmas service] honors the fact that Christmas is difficult, that the holidays are difficult for a lot of people. ... To know that they're not alone, and [that] we're celebrating the coming of Christ, who came for people who were hurting.

"So if they think that Christmas is not for them they are absolutely wrong, because Christmas is exactly for them, because if you are hurting or lonely or feeling lost this Christmas, then you are exactly the people that Jesus came for."

Religion on 12/22/2018

Print Headline: The longest night: Blue Christmas services recognize our sadness, trauma and loss in this supposedly joyful season

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