Surprised by the Child
by Jack Kintner (November / December 1998 — Volume 14, Number 6)
A building scheduling snafu brings some Washington State islanders of different Christian traditions together to celebrate the birth of Jesus
Our parish shares a building on Lopez Island with the Roman Catholic parish, which like ours, covers the whole San Juan island chain off the coast of Washington. We occasionally share services during the year, such as Thanksgiving or mid-week Lent evenings, as well as classes.
Little did we know that we would be sharing Christmas Eve worship for the first time, as well.
The Lutherans are about twice the size as the Catholics, maybe 50 or so compared to 20 to 25 worshippers. We also include the Episcopal congregation on the island in shared events, so it makes for a full sanctuary when we combine things.
At times, we use a barn on the south end of the island, especially when our choir (also a combined effort with the Episcopalians) is singing or when we have some kind of pageant.
Using the barn helps us get more people, like the Quaker group and maybe a couple of the Jewish families, since their nearest synagogue is in Bellingham. Sometimes the Rabbi flies out with me to visit.
But last year, we planned to stay at Center Church for Christmas Eve worship, as did the Roman Catholics. Their priest, Jim Mehan, and I thought we'd checked times for Christmas Eve worship with each other at the Thanksgiving Eve service in the barn.
But three days before Christmas, we found that we had scheduled the same church building for the same time, 5 p.m. The papers, already printed, would come out on Christmas Eve with publicity from both parishes, and both services would also draw unchurched islanders as well as tourists and relatives in for the holidays.
So, with no way to change things, we decided to do a combined service. Jim suggested that he preach since he'd already written his sermon. I agreed to print the bulletins and provide music.
We both agreed to use the Catholic worship for the beginning of the service and the communion liturgy. Then after he completed his distribution, we'd all share the peace and next sing a verse of "Good Christian Friends." At this point, I would consecrate our elements and continue with our distribution. Then we'd all finish with "Silent Night" by candlelight.
People began arriving at 4 p.m. that afternoon. By 4:45 it was packed, and by 5 it was beyond packed.
I didn't play my guitar because I didn't have room. I spent the first part of the service standing on a pew next to our organist, who was playing her keyboard from the back of the room. I was giving her cues (she was surrounded by people standing and couldn't see) and was directing the Lutherans who formed a sort of informal choir for the mass. We sang a few carols and the Agnus Dei from Marty Haugen's "Now the Feast" at the appropriate time.
When it came time for Jim to serve communion, it was like having a square dance in a submarine. He finished and left for the sacristy because he had to catch a ferry for San Juan Island. I continued with the briefest of consecrations, something even a Haugeaner Lutheran might find a little short, and then looked out at this jammed nave and got a little choked.
It was hard not to. In part of his sermon, Jim had talked about George Bailey in the movie It's a Wonderful Life, and asked, "What would it have been like if you hadn't been born?" If Jim hadn't been here, I'm not sure any of this would have happened.
But the Jesuits, like the Lutherans, have an independent streak born of a colorful history with Rome, and I suppose this may have played a part in his decision to share what we could and live with the joyous pain of not sharing what we couldn't.
After the worship, however, the congregation broke into spontaneous applause.
I thought to myself how often at Christmas we clergy rag at the secular world to improve their treatment of Christmas. Here, we did something ourselves, a combined service where, had we done our separate thing, it would probably have been just another ho-hum Christmas Eve: their community, with maybe 25 people attending, no music at all, and a somewhat empty-looking church; ours, a repeat of last year, nice, but not nearly what it became.
It's hard to believe that this worship was "by mistake." What a nice surprise it was for all of us, for those attending and for those of us willing to take a risk for the sake of something like this.
In the days following the worship, the news spread around the island about what we did, giving some contemporary meaning to the phrase "great glad tidings of joy." I don't know if we can do this again, but having done it once, it's just a matter of time until we do it every year.
And when that becomes regular and a little mundane, what surprises will the Child bring to us then?
Jack Kitner is pastor of Lutheran Church in the San Juans, Washington. (Another version of this article first appeared in Seeds for the Parish in the July/August 1998 issue.)