Pandemic Lighting of the Advent Wreath

There are some readings that can be handed out to the families of your church without explanation. They know to read the script and light the candles. This is not that.

This Advent is not that. We have learned to do worship differently in the past two years. Our traditions have shifted and we have made room for new possibilities. It will soon be cold and some congregations will return to online platforms for their worship because it’s not possible to safely gather in their sanctuaries at this point in the pandemic. The risk is still there. It is still too great or it may be the designated worship space is being completely remodeled as it is at Old First United Church of Christ in Philadelphia, PA and there is no alternative space that would quite work.

Old First was the inspiration for digging up this liturgy from too many years ago when I first imagined how we might share simple stories about our faith. It has back in those days when we were all excited about testimony. Or at least we were in the United Church of Christ and I spent a whole lot of time trying to imagine how our traditional New England worship would allow for more truth telling. (They were so patient with me and I’m still proud of the risks we took together. I’m so grateful for the ways that they taught me to do church.) The liturgy that follows is adapted from one I wrote way back then but it needed to be spruced up a bit for the wonderful people of Old First who will be using this liturgy with their pandemic pods.

Their brilliant pastor and the elders formed groups to meet on Zoom early in the pandemic. It’s a urban congregation where people knew names and faces and a smattering of tiny details about each person but these groups have introduced a new level of intimacy and connection. They’ve stuck together through all of this and it’s changed their community in the best way possible. Old First won’t have traditional families lead these candle lightings, but these new pandemic families who will share some part of their story and connection as they light the Advent candles.

These scripts do not require a ton of extra explanation for the church people that have done Advent a few times, but they are not the kind of thing that can be read without advance preparation. And so, I offer the following instructions to share with your good people.

  • Please read the whole liturgical moment for your designated Sunday and then decide how the reading might be shared, if it is desired to use more than one voice.
  • Read slowly and with intention. Allow us to feel the expectation and wonder in each word.
  • Pray together with those that you will share this candle lighting about what the vision will be that you’ll share. It does not need to be a long explanation. It may only be two or three sentences to explain something you experienced together. Try to make it personal to your shared experience.
  • You may choose to script the vision you’ll share or invite someone within your group to speak that truth in their own words at the designated moment. Try to make it brief but powerful. Tell the truth with great love.

Surely, you will add to this list as certainly as you will make a series of technical choices that make sense for your community in sharing in this moment of worship. Hopefully, this gets you excited to do this thing that you’ve done so well throughout this pandemic. Dear pastor, you are a true wonder. Thank you for all you do in the world. I am blessed by it and so it is with gratitude I offer this liturgy for lighting the candles of the Advent Wreath.

First Sunday of Advent

Our expectation begins now.
It starts here after so much 
has happened but we still 
expect more.

We begin our journey, like Joseph and Mary,  
in darkness. We cannot see the way ahead.
We cannot know what hope will come but
we trust God to journey with us,
beckoning along with the prophets,

"The days are surely coming, 
says the LORD, when I will fulfill 
the promise I made to 
the house of Israel 
and the house of Judah.
It is coming." This is our hope 
today as we light the 
first candle of Advent.  

[First Candle is lit.]
		
We light this candle 
to remember what was promised
and every dream we dared to dream
about what could be. We light this
candle full of hope because 
we know the days are surely 
coming as we have seen signs 
of God's hope in…  

(name a vision of hope 
you’ve recently seen 
in your daily life, 
in your relationships,
or in the news).

With this hope, we know
that the days are surely coming
and so we pray together:

O God, who gave us the Light, 
thank you for giving us hope 
in the form of a child at Bethlehem.  
As we prepare to celebrate 
the birth of this holy child, 
may we see signs of your hope 
in the darkness of despair. Amen.

Second Sunday of Advent

When so much feels uneven
and unsteady, we push 
into the wild possibility 
that change will come. 
We imagine the peace 
how the world might 
shift in the hope 
John the Baptizer 
dares us to dream,

"Every valley shall be filled, 
and every mountain 
and hill shall be made low, 
and the crooked shall be made straight, 
and the rough ways made smooth; 
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."
It is in this wild possibility that we light
the second candle of Advent.  

[Second Candle is lit.]

We light this candle 
in search of your peace.  
We look forward to the days 
when all the rough places are smooth, 
but for now we seek your comfort…  

(name a time when
you have recently 
been found comfort 
in words, in a kindness, 
or even in an idea).

With this possibility, we believe
our rough places will be made smooth
and so we pray together:

Prince of Peace, you came to us 
in the innocence of an infant.  
Comfort us when the world feels too rough.  
Give us the courage to find friends 
in unlikely places as we work together 
toward your peace.  Amen.

Third Sunday of Advent

We come find warmth 
together in the light
of God’s love. We have
often felt so misunderstood 
and even unloved, but today
we marvel in the love that
begins in God. We celebrate
the love we have known
in the words of the Apostle Paul,    

"And the peace of God, 
which surpasses all understanding, 
will guard your hearts 
and your minds in Christ Jesus."
It is in this peace that 
our guarded hearts break 
open to welcome the light
of this third candle of Advent.

[Third Candle is lit.]

We light this candle 
to celebrate your love 
that unites all people.  
In the warmth of 
this shimmering hope, 
we dream of that all people 
might experience this kind of love 
that surpasses all understanding. 

(Share a brief story about 
how you’ve experienced love together. 
Begin this story 
with the words, “I dream…”)

With this love made real,
we find new understanding 
of what love could change
and so we pray together:

Loving God, pour into our hearts 
this day the light of your love, 
warming us to one another, 
enlightening our understanding of others,
 and revealing the love that 
guards our hearts and minds. Amen.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

We might not feel quite ready, 
still we praise God. There is
joy in the inexplicable and
the extraordinary. We celebrate wonder
of what could be just as
Mary sang,

"My soul magnifies the Lord, 
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 
for he has looked with favor 
on the lowliness of his servant. 
Surely, from now on 
all generations will call me blessed.”
It is with this joy that 
our souls unite to magnify 
the good news so full of blessing
in the lighting of this 
fourth candle of Advent.

[Fourth Candle is lit.]

We light this candle 
to celebrate our joy for the world. 
Like Mary, we might hesitate
and be cautious with our praise
but when we remember how
what God has done, we 
can only sing with joy.

(Share a brief story about 
you’ve been surprised by joy.. 
Begin this story with 
the words, “I remember…”)

With this deep joy,
our hearts join together
in prayer to God:

Eternal God, who magnifies 
each of our souls, 
surprise us this joy 
in these last few days 
before Christmas. Warm our hearts 
to feel the joy of your presence 
in our lives and in your world. Amen.

Christmas Eve

In the silence of this night, 
we celebrate the tiny hope 
of birth in Jesus, our Christ. 
As we wonder what this 
birth means to us, we recall 
all that we have found
on the way to Bethlehem. 

We remember every bit of
hope, peace, love and joy 
we have shared in sacred story.  
These lights shine bright
as the work of Christmas begins.

(Reader pauses as each candle is lit in order.) 

The light of hope ... (Candle is lit.)
The light of peace ... (Candle is lit.)
The light of love ... (Candle is lit.)
The light of joy… (Candle is lit.)

Now, as the shepherds worship 
and the cattle low, we sing 
with the angels that 
God has come into the world. 
We join in that song, singing,

"Glory to God in the highest heaven, 
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
It is in this glory and awe 
that we light the candle of our Savior.

(Christ candle is lit.)

We light the Christ candle 
to celebrate our Savior. 
We join the chorus of angels 
with our glad tidings and great joy.
God has been made real 
again. God has come close. 
We add our praise, 
remembering...

(name a time, at Christmas 
or some other time, 
when you’ve been 
able to see God
in another person.)

As God becomes known
again in human flesh
and ordinary wonder,
we join our hearts
to pray together:

Holy God, we rejoice in your presence! 
The birth of this baby at Bethlehem 
gives us wonder and delight. 
The birth of your holy child 
is your answer to our unrest, 
our confusion and our sorrow. 
Tonight we live in Hope, 
we pray for Peace, 
we share your Love, 
as we are filled with your Joy. 
Thank you for sending 
your Child to be our Immanuel. Amen.

As you encourage your good people to find their words, there might be interest in these special workshop opportunities offered by Maren Tirabassi following the release of her book of poems last year entitled Christmas Eve at the Epsom Circle McDonald’s. (I have a copy. It’s really, really good.) This year, Maren is offering two workshops Zoom for the price of 10 books. Find out more here.

There is one more candle lighting buried in the archives of this blog. You can find it here. You might also be interested in this Pandemic Liturgy for Advent from last year. If you’re looking for more ideas for Advent, you can find some liturgies and group studies in my kitchen. I have a few more things cooked up for you as the season draws near including the my very occasional potluck newsletter that is just about ready to land in your mailbox. You can sign up here.

I am praying for you, dear pastors, liturgists and musicians. I’m praying for you so much as this season of wonder and light comes again.

Pandemic Longest Night and Christmas Eve Worship

If you’ve been clicking around From My Kitchen or found my newsletter earlier this week in your email, this is old news to you. You are busy, dear pastor. You have already seen this. You can go do the many other things on your list.

If you were not so lucky to find these things yet (and I do hope these are things that make you feel lucky and joyous), I’m thrilled to finally share with you the services I’ve been working on for Longest Night and Christmas Eve. These were surprisingly hard to write. I am not exactly sure why that is.

Advent began with decorations on our tree and lights filling the house. It wasn’t the same as hanging the greens at church. I am feeling that loss as I know so many are in this strange new season — further compounded by the fact that I couldn’t get worship to stream from our tiny Texas church. It is one of those pandemic frustrations of having technology fail when it is our life line and it still annoyed the crap out of me, but I’ve been working on these liturgies long before the tree went up. As the year ends, I’m finding it hard to both find words for the grief of this moment and to find the joy that should overflow when we’ve finally found our way to Bethlehem.

After all, Advent feels as though it started in March when the first stay-at-home orders swept across the country because of the rampant spread of the coronavirus. We have been apart from each other for much of this year which has made 2020 feel like an especially long year.

I dove into the ancient psalms of lamentation after trying really hard to make the creation story work in how we talk about the night at this moment. I found comfort in psalms that didn’t express my lament but reminded me of the hope that we find in God. Those are the words we love and need to hear again and again, right? I hoped to make space for how hard it is to name the immensity of our grief right now because it’s not just that we have lost someone dear. It is not just one death but millions of deaths worldwide due to a virus that is not yet contained or really understood. It is the devastation we have seen to our planet while glued to our screens. It is the anxiety of constantly refreshing our browsers for hope and maybe some good news and it’s the backward summersault that too many of us have done into anti-racism work this year. We have lost more lives than we can imagine and maybe we have wondered if we even lost a tiny bit of ourselves.

There has been so much loss. There is still so much that is unknown even as a new church year has dawned. When the Night Has Already Been So Long, we are looking for some way to speak to that immense grief. That’s what I hope this online worship experience will offer to the gathered community huddled around candles in their own homes. I hope it’s a chance to be together and hold vigil for a new day to dawn. 

I actually wrote the Christmas Eve service first. It felt really strange to me to write Advent liturgies before writing Christmas Eve this year because I have always worked backwards. I have always needed to know what Christmas is going to look like and feel like until I can really figure out how Advent might feel and I’m not sure these services are at all related. Shadows and Light is really a service that makes room for more grief than the typical Christmas celebration. I hope there is joy. I hope it gets there in the music and poetry I’ve selected but Christmas always has a quietness to it.

It’s that quietness that has always puzzled me. When the birth of Christ is most vivid, we turn out all the lights to sit in the dark and sing a lullaby. It’s beautiful. Don’t get me wrong. It’s just not really joyous. (I know. I know. Don’t mess with tradition.) But I did.

I did mess with tradition when I was in my last settled call. It came out of a worship planning conversation where we talked about more light and so I created an Advent wreath (except that it wasn’t a wreath) where more candles were added each week and we named the light we saw coming into the world aloud. Then, on Christmas Eve, I didn’t do Silent Night. It wasn’t there. I got lots of complaints because church people love tradition without questioning why we do what we do.

If you are reading this and you were one of the wonderful people at that church who allowed me to experiment and play so much, I want you to know I am grateful for the space you gave me. I’m even more grateful that I got to be your pastor.

If ever there was a year where we could do something a teeny tiny bit different, I thought this year might be it. I thought maybe we could try it again and see what we might learn. You know your people best, dear pastor. You know if this is what is needed this year or if tradition is really what people need right now. You know.

Inspired by the Tenebrae tradition that is so familiar to Holy Week celebrations, Shadows and Light flows like a service of Lessons and Carols with song and story weaving together the good news of this birth.

More and more candles are lit to welcome the Light of the World before Joy to the World is sung with full gusto and glory.

As usual, I use quite a bit of poetry and you’ll find I’ve updated Poetry for Lessons and Carols to reflect some of the choices I’ve made for this service. (Ok, I also added a bunch more that I just loved and didn’t include in this service.)

Both liturgies are available for $10 each using the above links by immediate download. Or if you are interested in both worship services, you can find this Shadow and Night Bundle for $15 here.

Music suggestions are provided in both liturgies and was quick to add a few more when I discovered these FREE Christmas Carol videos especially for online worship. I know that pastors are not the only ones that are tired right now.

I also decided to make Christmas Eve Under Pandemic Skies available for just $2 for those are looking for a safe way to worship outside in a pandemic. It was part of the outdoor prayer station experience I helped to design for my sweet Texas church. And yes, I know this won’t work on some church properties and especially in many climates. If anything, you can tell your worship committee (or other angry church member) that such a thing exists and you would be overjoyed if they would take a lead in planning it.

I know how busy this time of year is for you, dear pastors. I am holding you close and lighting candles for your courage, your strength and your abundant faith.

Pandemic Prayers for Advent and Christmas

Though I am not posting weekly prayers during these four weeks, I do not want to leave you orphaned. I also do not think that I am Jesus. For some reason, that Gospel Lesson is working on me so there it is. If you are looking for prayers for this season, I am here for you. That’s what I meant.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a Pandemic Liturgy for Advent. It is a complete liturgy centered around a series of worship videos with some things left open for you to customize to your context.

If you are looking for more prayers, be sure to check out RevGalBlogPals Worship Words updated each and every week. I will look forward to sharing in that collaboration and you can look for my words on Advent 4 but I really love this collection of voices. Use these gifts. I also commend to you the work of LiturgyLink which includes some of my older prayers. There’s a search bar on the left to find the particular Sunday you need. You might also check the archive of News from My Kitchen to find a few other wonders I found. (Click on the previous link and then click on the red View Letter Archive.)

I can’t resist not sharing SALT Project’s Advent Candle Lighting Litanies. I just think that everything they do is gorgeous and I’m so excited my little Texas church sent me a blessing box with some of their materials for Advent. I know there are other great candle lighting liturgies out there and I’ll attempt to link to them on Instagram. You can find me @pandemic.prayers.

Oh, but I also want to share one more from the amazing Theresa Cho who shared this At-Home Advent Ritual Set last week. It’s just stunning. Download it even if it’s just for you.

You might also wander over to YouTube which I never thought I’d spend so much time on before the pandemic where I am always adding songs to my playlists for Advent Music and Christmas Music.

I created a few resources for this season that are unique including Keeping Watch Under Pandemic Skies. It is an outdoor meditation that wanders through Advent into Epiphany. You probably want to opt for the shorter path if you’re just finding it now but it includes an outdoor Christmas Eve service so you could check that off your list.

I also created a group discussion guide based on the devotional that I had written years ago to explore the grief that is so palpable in the third wave of this %$#!@ pandemic. And just so you don’t have to go searching for it, you can find all the info for Twinkly Lights in Blue Pandemic Days by following that link.

If you are planning ahead to Blue Christmas or Longest Night, I have something in the works for you. If you cannot wait, this Pandemic Liturgy for All Saints Day could be adapted. Unless you already used it in November and then you’ll have to wait for what is yet to come or find one of the other gifts that other talented souls are offering in yet another pandemic holy season. Remember how we thought it would just be Easter? That was funny.

If you are planning even further ahead, you might want to use Lessons and Carols for Coronatide for Christmas Eve. I really recommend it for the First Sunday of Christmas — not only because I’m working on something else for Christmas Eve but also because it gives you a break from preaching and extends the joy of this season. We need some joy. We need lots of joy. Also, you have the option of the outdoor Christmas Eve service from Keeping Watch Under Pandemic Skies unless you are in a northern climate where there is already three feet of snow, then that’s the worst idea ever. If you are not in that category and want just the Christmas Eve service and not the whole bundle, shoot me a note.

In these four weeks, I’m going to write two more liturgies for the Advent and Christmas season. I might even write one for Epiphany. I have a rough idea on that one where the others are already drafted. I’ll be sending out the next edition of News from My Kitchen including some ingredients for your worship in the season of Epiphany and Lent. I plan to return to weekly prayers after Christmas.

This is a busy season when it is not a pandemic. This is a time of year full of sweet memories and time honored traditions and all of those things will look and feel different this year. I know you will hear this from members of our community. They will lament, but I’m going to hold the space for you, dear pastors, because I know that you are carrying some sadness about this season too. Laura Stephens-Reed named this well way back in September. You are doing an amazing thing right now, dear pastors. You are offering wonder, light and hope even if you do not feel those things yourself.

You are light. I promise you that.

Litany for the Birth on Christmas

J A S M I N EIt was raining all today and I was generally uninspired but sat my butt down in the chair and wrote the liturgy for Christmas Eve. Though I’m currently serving a congregation as an interim pastor, I was hired after I’d made plans for a family vacation in Italy for Christmas — so I will not be with these good people on Christmas Eve even as worship planning is still my charge.

That is fine with me though because I love some good worship planning. Theirs is a traditional service — a word that mystifies and confuses me whenever it might be used within the context of worship. What is traditional for one body is not for another but that doesn’t stop us from using the term as if every single community across the globe was raised on the exact same traditions. I digress. With last year’s bulletin as a template, I sought to create something different and simple enough for guest pastors to lead. There are many that might be willing and able to offer their voices to read but I didn’t want to add to many moving pieces to the liturgy — even if I wanted something special for the reading of scripture. I opted for a litany with one leader and a congregational response that combines all four readings — at least in part — from the Revised Common Lectionary Year C. All Biblical reference are from the New Revised Standard Version.

Litany for the Birth on Christmas (Responsive)
Psalm 96, Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11, and Luke 2:1-14
Leader: O sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all the earth.
People: Sing to the LORD, bless his name;
tell of God’s salvation tonight and from day to day.
Leader: For tonight, a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders.
People: Tonight, we call this newborn babe our Wonderful Counselor, our Mighty God, our Everlasting Father, and our Prince of Peace.
Leader: Honor and majesty we give to him;
strength and beauty are in this sanctuary.
People: We have seen a great light! We have sung a great song!
We cannot stop from singing for the grace of our God
first appeared on this night, bringing salvation to one and all.
Leader: In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus
that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration
and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
People: All went to their own towns to be registered.
Leader: Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea,
to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended
from the house and family of David.
People: He went to be registered with Mary,
to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
Leader: While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth,
and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
People: In that region there were shepherds living in the fields,
keeping watch over their flock by night.
Leader: Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord
shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them,
People: Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy
for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior,
who is the Messiah, the Lord.
Leader: Tonight, unto us is born our Wonderful Counselor, our Mighty God,
our Everlasting Father, and our Prince of Peace.
People: This will be a sign for you, the angel said,
you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.
Leader: And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,
praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom God favors!”
People: O sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all the earth.
Leader: Declare God’s glory among every people everywhere,
People: Tell of our God’s marvelous works among all the peoples.
Leader: For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised.
People: Alleluia! Amen.

If you use this litany in your congregation’s worship, I do hope that you’ll let me know and most definitely give me credit for my hard work toiling away with these beautiful words.