The Rev. Ben Maas of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Louisville, Ky., lights one of 28 candles in memory of those killed in the Newtown, Conn., shootings as part of the congregation's Longest Night service.(Photo: Matt Stone, The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Congregants heard no triumphant organ fanfares, no joyous Christmas carols, only quiet readings and prayers in a sanctuary lit with votives amid the dusk of late afternoon.
The music was a soft guitar strumming, accompanying a humming solo of the hymn, In the Bleak Midwinter.
event was a Longest Night service at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church here
- one of a growing number of congregations across the country trying to
reach those who feel little comfort and joy amid the celebratory
a chance to say, 'My life is not totally fabulous,' and to hear God is
there," said the Rev. Martha Holland, children's minister at St. Andrew.
congregations call it a Blue Christmas service, reflecting the sadness
of the song popularized by Elvis Presley. Others call it the Longest
Night because it occurs on or near the winter solstice, with the year's
least amount of daylight. St. Andrew's service was Wednesday, two days
before the solstice.
Some people may be grieving for a loved one
with whom they shared Christmases past, Holland said. For others, who
may have experienced divorce, abuse or other family trauma, the last
thing they want to hear about is coming home for the holidays. Still
others simply may be stressed because of holiday expectations.
year's services are particularly sober amid the fresh grief of the mass
murder of children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in
"As the stress builds on our nation, we need more things like this," worshiper Scott Benson said.
And Indiana churches in Henryville, Otisco, Salem and Jeffersonville - all in or near the path of March 2 tornadoes that killed 35 in Indiana and Kentucky - have had or scheduled services this week that include references to that disaster.
knew the holidays were going to be a really difficult time for them,"
the Rev. Jennifer Mills-Knutsen said. She leads the spiritual and
emotional recovery team for March2Recovery, an umbrella group responding
to those disasters.
Blue Christmas services have become more and more common in the past
two decades with denominations and other groups even adapting
traditional December liturgies for the purpose.
At St. Andrew on
Wednesday, participants lit four candles on the Advent wreath in honor
of grief, pain, fear and struggle, a contrast to their usual
representation of love, joy, peace and hope.
Such services help
revive the historic meanings of the season of Advent, said the Rev. Chip
Hardwick, director of theology, worship and education at the
Louisville-based Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
the season, consisting of the four Sundays before Christmas, was a
stark, penitential period focused on a longing for the coming of the
kingdom of God - something inaugurated by Jesus' birth but that awaits a
future fulfillment, Hardwick said.
But a cultural message that
"everything is shiny and happy for Christmas" has overwhelmed the
season's original meaning, he said.
"I think the shootings have
demonstrated in such a public way that that's simply not true," Hardwick
said. "Advent is the time when we wait for the world to be what we want
it to be."
At St. Andrew, typically 20 to 30 people attend Longest Night services.
Some may need the service in a given year while others come annually with some "ongoing pain," Holland said.
The church began the service after a hit-and-run driver in 2008 killed two children who regularly attended.
"It helps people grieving," St. Andrew member Julianne Kirk said. A
stillborn grandchild in 2010 added to her ongoing grief over the two
The service helps "just being closer to God,"
she said. "We can't know what the reasons are. Things happen. ... It
makes you stronger."
The Rev. Ron Knott, director of Catholic
worship at Bellarmine University, had a Blue Christmas Mass last
Christmas Eve for the first time at Our Lady of the Woods Chapel - and
was stunned with the turnout of about 300 people.
overwhelming," he said. "We were not really prepared for what showed up.
We were putting up chairs as people were coming in."
for it was a column he had written about holiday grief in the
Archdiocese of Louisville's newspaper, The Record. He received so many
responses from people telling their own stories of sorrow and tragedy
that he decided to schedule the service.
"It's a comfort to a lot
of people," he said. For them, "a very upbeat, celebratory Christmas is
like salt in the wounds - families with children, everybody's happy."
He plans a service again this Christmas Eve before a more upbeat early Mass.
Rev. Ben Maas, pastor of St. Andrew, said the goal of the service there
was not to provide neat answers for why suffering occurs but to assure
parishioners of what is ultimately the message of Christmas:
light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it, no
matter how much it seems like the darkness is winning," he said.
Peter Smith, The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal