When I was only 18, the Methodist Church sent me off to pastor three very small, rural churches in South Georgia. I was way too young, but even someone as young and foolhardy as I couldn’t do these churches much harm … or much good.
It was my first Christmas away from home. Until then, I’d spent every Christmas Eve of my life at my paternal grandparents’ house with dozens of Italian cousins and mountains of food. Since then, I’ve spent almost every Christmas Eve with a congregation somewhere. There were many years when more than 3,000 of us gathered at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas. My first Christmas Eve at Virginia-Highland Church, we hoped to break 50, but I’m not sure we did. This year we are shooting for 200.
Having served churches from 20 members to 4,000 members, I’ve discovered that services for tiny congregations take just as much work and preparation. The volunteers and staff of the smaller churches around the country will work very hard tomorrow to ensure that, when people gather, all is ready and as wonderful as they can make it. Larger churches often are able to pay people to do much of the work, though I have found that, most of the time, the staff is deeply devoted to what they are doing and willing to be away from their families not because they are paid, but because they love God and the congregations they serve.
The other thing I have realized is, whether 20 or 2,000 people have gathered, when you light the final candle on the wreath and declare the end of Advent, the season of waiting, it feels like it really is Christmas. Something mystical and magical happens. The whole world has been celebrating Christmas since Halloween, but, gathered in the dark of that silent night, the faithful know a tiny light, kindled by those who have prepared as best they could for that moment, is the real sign that it is Christmas. It doesn’t require 4,000 witnesses and trumpets.
As the prophet said long ago, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
Rev. Michael Piazza