One of our parish youngsters helps Fr. Tim in offering a birthday blessing to Deacon Chuck. Our children are an active, vital piece of our liturgical worship at St. John’s.

            As we approach the final days of Advent and we finish our final preparations for Christmas, I want to ask you to take a moment to pause and to reflect on something. I want you to think about what Christmas has meant to you over the years. When we do personal reflection, there really aren’t right or wrong answers to the questions we pose. So be honest with yourself as you think of these prompts. If you are an adult, do you enjoy the holidays? Do you like Christmas music on the radio or would you rather listen to something else? Do you like to drive around town and look at the fancy light displays? Do you enjoy making treats and giving gifts? Do you enjoy receiving gifts? Do you try to pawn off the treats that people have generously given you because you don’t want to be rude, but you’re watching your calories? Again, whatever your answers are, they are your answers, and they are neither right nor wrong. Now what I want you to do is to go back in time. Think about what Christmas was like for you as a child. Did you have special Christmas traditions that made your Christmases magical? Do you have fond memories of writing letters to Santa Claus and then having trouble sleeping on Christmas Eve? Do you remember rushing to the living room in the early morning hours, taking a peek at what gifts might be under the tree? What was the feeling like when you received your favorite childhood Christmas gift? Do you still chase that feeling today?

            I suspect that for many of us, our childhood memories of Christmas stick with us far more than our memories of Christmases as adults. For adults, Christmas can be stressful, chaotic, expensive, and downright busy. Hopefully we can manage at least a little bit of fun and spirituality as well, but I bet there’s a really good chance that January 1 brings to many of us some relief that a stressful December is over. But for kids, Christmas is magic! Kids get to go to parties, exchange gifts, eat lots of cookies and candies, and open that life-changing gift that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives. And for both adults and children alike, a very important part of the Christmas experience is attending worship services on Christmas Eve.

            When I was a kid, I compartmentalized two distinct Christmas observances fairly well. There was the holy part, which included spending weeks rehearsing Christmas songs and then attending midnight mass (it still started at midnight in those days!). If I was lucky, I’d be chosen to be the thurifer. How exciting! Then, we’d go home and try to get to bed so Santa could come. Santa, gift exchanges, decorations, and treats were all part of the other, more playful Christmas experience. For a kid, these two experiences can coexist. Even as adults, we can have both experiences (in fact, as I write this, I’m wearing an aloha shirt featuring images of Santa surfing the big waves in Hawaii and enjoying a cold drink under a palm tree). So it’s important that the Christmas experience is everything we want it to be in our hearts.

            While I certainly hope people have a meaningful Christmas, my real Christmas wish this year is to share the sacred, holy Christmas experience with as many people as possible. This includes with our youngsters. It is my hope (and even my expectation!) that there will be a whole lot of kids present in church as we celebrate Holy Communion together. While many churches, including St. John’s, welcome kids of all ages to all worship services, there is frequently a “Family Service” earlier in the evening. At St. John’s, the Family Service begins at 6:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve. During this service, the children will be invited to participate in the annual pageant and to share in the sermon. They will be invited to join us around the altar during the Eucharistic prayer and they will be invited to be first in line to receive Holy Communion. The role of our children is to be present, to celebrate, and to rejoice in the love of the Christ child. A child who is, after all, one of them! For the rest of us, our role is to support them and to encourage them. The playful and the prayerful sides of Christmas can coexist in the same space at the same time. As a priest, I encourage all of us to embrace it.

            For the past several months at St. John’s, we have followed this format during our service late Sunday mornings. And I am so thrilled at the engagement and enthusiasm I have seen from our kids. They love to be welcomed to gather around the altar and they love to be included. This warms my heart because I know the future of our Church is in capable hands of people who are learning from a young age that they are welcome to attend, serve, and participate in church. It isn’t something they have to sit through while the adults “do their thing.” They are active, thriving participants. And they are participating in the fullness of grace in the sharing of the sacraments. It’s really quite amazing!

            The increased participation of kids in church means that we adults must do something that might not seem easy or comfortable to do: embrace the chaos. I understand that the presence of kids in church can be a little chaotic and unpredictable. In the early days of television, some networks had a policy of never working with kids or animals because of their unpredictability. But networks learned techniques that helped make this a possibility, and the Church will learn techniques, too. I am so proud of our children for how much they’ve learned and grown. They ask wonderful, important questions during the sermon, and they pay extra close attention during the prayer of consecration. Then, when the time comes to receive communion, they share their infectious joy with the clergy. One little girl asks me to make sure I break off a “big piece” of communion bread for her. When I do, her eyes simply light up. This is a good thing.

            I’ve heard the suggestion that we need to encourage the children to behave more like the adults. And I suppose there might be some truth to this, provided we make a small change. I would like to see the adults behave more like children! You see, the children are not afraid to dance to the hymns. They’re not afraid to smile. They’re not afraid to laugh. They’re not afraid to skip blissfully as they approach the communion rail. They aren’t afraid to share their emotions. And I think we have a lot to learn from our kids! I’m not suggesting we should be disruptive. But I am suggesting we can let our emotions shine through. When we approach the Lord’s table, it’s really ok to approach with joy, and maybe even a skip in our step. After all, we are on our way to have a real, genuine, and personal encounter with our Lord! Our Lord who loves us and wants us to know he loves us.

            As we prepare to welcome lots of visitors into our churches this Christmas, my wish is that we all can be mindful of the importance of ensuring God’s people feel welcome. This includes, perhaps most importantly, the children in our communities. This means that some of us will have to prioritize our tolerance for noise over our preference for perfection. Some of us will have to extend words of encouragement and comfort to stressed parents. Some of us will have to be ok with kids interrupting our sermons by asking clarifying questions. All of these are ok and all of these are good. Remember that the same baby who was born that Christmas morning grew up to be the man who told his disciples to let the children come and be with him (Matt. 19:14). Let’s each of us remember the joy we felt as youngsters on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, and do our best to extend that same joy to the young people in our lives.

My Grownup Christmas Wish