The Worship Environment at Christmas

Will the parish Christmas decorations show good liturgical sense? Here are some guidelines for planning the worship environment for the Christmas season.

Decorations should not be limited to the area around the altar, ambo (pulpit), and chair. To do so creates a stage setting. Keep this area free from distraction by limiting the floral arrangements around the altar and by placing crèche figures elsewhere. Hackneyed decorations, such as masses of poinsettias or wreaths hung on every pillar, though beautiful in themselves, can have a numbing effect. Such overkill also obscures what these decorations signify.

First determine how you will embellish the assembly area, especially in the space over everyone’s heads. Then determine where more “intimate,” deeply traditional elements will be put—an apple-hung fir tree, a large suspended globe of intersecting wreaths, a place for the icons of the Christmastime feasts, the Bethlehem scene. These things are best located where they can be visited and contemplated before or after worship—near the baptistery or the gathering area or a shrine.

The most serious problem facing all parish ministers in preparing the Christmas season is the schizophrenia of the parish in early January when its church building is clad in red, white, and green but the homes of the parishioners (and the parish school) have already been stripped of their finery. Under such circumstances, worship is a sham. Liturgical ministers can’t begin to do their jobs unless they also help the parish live the Christian calendar at home as well as in church.

Wasting money and resources on decorations is certainly offensive. However, equally offensive is the notion that miserliness in worship somehow reflects the gospel. The gospel doesn’t demand that we pretend to be poor, but that we break down the barriers between rich and poor. If ethnic customs are any gauge, the poor know the value of flamboyant festival excess. Communal celebration means the pooling of resources to enable those who live in everyday simplicity to share in festival abundance. Fasting begets feasting. Perhaps we shouldn’t judge celebrations by the money spent but by the efforts invested by rich and poor alike, all made able to contribute their gifts and talents to one another.

The whole notion of decorating for Christmastime creates unique problems with few easy solutions. For example, at this season, any exceptional effort in liturgy, such as fine music or decorations, has the potential for coming off as just another holiday extravaganza. Yet Christmastime, especially in its full flowering at Epiphany, calls forth the “brightest and best” the parish can muster (although that should never turn into something pompous or triumphalistic).

The evergreens, flowers, or lights—anything you might use to grace Christmas worship—runs the risk of reminding people of a shopping mall, of appearing to glorify money and power. Ironically, the more beautiful and well-executed the Christmas worship environment is, the more it is likely to remind some parishioners of commercial displays. This is an unsolvable dilemma, exacerbated by many Christians’ lack of appreciation for their own symbols.

Opening Up Our Images

Environment ministers—those folks entrusted with the care and keeping of the material things of the liturgy—have a responsibility to open up for parishioners the meaning of the images of Christmas. While trees, wreaths, lights, and holiday foods we see everywhere in December have various meanings to many people, we often forget that Christians have found specifically Christian meanings in these symbols and held them dear for centuries.

If we ask ourselves what a tinseled tree or an evergreen wreath or even a plum pudding has to do with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, we’re likely to be stymied. But if we ask what these things have to do with the union of heaven and earth, with time dissolving into timelessness, with the everlasting presence of Emmanuel, God with us, then perhaps we will find our answers.

The bright tree is our return to paradise. With greenery and flowers, winter melts into Eden’s endless spring. Fruit cakes represent the harvest of justice. Eggnog is the milk and honey of the promised land. Sending cards hastens the ingathering of all people. Mistletoe heralds the coming of the Prince of Peace. Lights strung around our doors welcome all the world to the homecoming of heaven.

Each of these holy signs can offer comfort and joy, and they can also offer a tremendous challenge. Like the prophets, like John raging in the wilderness, our Christmas symbols can threaten us to open our doors to those who have no feast, to restore this good earth to the freshness of Eden, to labor long to bring about the reign of justice and compassion. Holy signs are always a two-edged sword.

Even the crèche is not so much a representation of a birth long ago and far away, but the birth that is to be, of the “hopes and fears of all the years,” when the poor and the rich will stand side by side with animals and angels, offering themselves each to the other, lost in wonder and praise, the circle of the saints surrounding the Lamb.

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