I served a congregation in Our Nation’s Capital for many years and found Christmas Eve to be a disappointment in terms of what I’d experienced as a child. Because almost everyone in the congregation was from Someplace Else [Note: most people who live in the DC area are not from the DC area] they returned home to Nebraska or Ohio or South Carolina for the holidays and so either the pews were semi-empty or they were filled with strangers visiting from out of town.
Unlike the Christmas Eve services throughout the nation, there was no children’s choir (they were all visiting grandparents in other states/countries), there was no adult choir (most of them were with their families of origins in the ‘home churches’) and there were no crowds. I almost forgot was it was like to have full pews for Christmas.
Now I live in a small town south of Chicago where everyone comes home for Christmas and home is here. On the fourth Sunday of Advent, there were two children’s choirs and two young adults (in high school or back from college) playing a viola duet. The pews were packed and it’s not even Christmas Eve yet. On Christmas Eve, there will be three services and all of them will be full.
But back to strangers. No matter where we live, there will be “strangers” in our pews on Christmas Eve. Maybe they’ll be the family members or the significant others of family members. Maybe they’ll be people who walked in off the street curious about this cultural phenomenon called Lessons & Carols. Maybe neighbors who ordinarily don’t do church will be invited for this one night, to be followed by eggnog back at the house.
But the most important people in the room on Christmas Eve will be The Strangers because Jesus was once The Stranger, so different from everybody else. So strangely obedient to the Truth of the Gospel. So unlike others in his own faith tradition. If nothing else, Jesus taught us how to treat The Other.
Look out for the strangers on Christmas Eve. If we don’t welcome them on Christmas Eve, we never will.