In the 1947 Hollywood film “The Bishop’s Wife,” Henry Brougham, played by David Niven, unexpectedly gets a helping hand from above as he delivers a sermon to his congregation on Christmas Eve.
That doesn’t seem to happen in real life, at least not so much that you’d notice. However, according to many clergy members in the Schenectady area, divine assistance isn’t always necessary. Keeping things short on Christmas Eve is a good rule of thumb, and after all, you’re already working with a great story.
“I had a professor who was in the habit of only reading short stories on Christmas Eve,” said First Reformed senior minister Bill Levering. “Sometimes the pressure can be great because there’s usually a lot more people there and you want to sound deep and warm. But people really don’t want to hear anything in too much depth on Christmas Eve. They want to hear a short, heartwarming Christmas story.”
The Rev. Anthony Carlino of St. John the Evangelist and St. Anthony’s in Schenectady agrees that while coming up with a new and different Christmas Eve sermon can put ministers to the test, the important thing is to remember what it is that Christians are celebrating.
“The season evokes memories of childhood, so it is a very sentimental time and that can be a real challenge for preachers,” said Carlino. “There are presents to get and Christmas carols to sing, but what you want to make sure people remember is the historical event of the birth of Jesus, and its implications for us today.”
“The Bishop’s Wife,” which also starred Loretta Young as the bishop’s wife and Cary Grant as an Angel named Dudley, ends with Niven’s character, Bishop Brougham, reading his sermon from the pulpit as Dudley, who presumably wrote it, listens from a distance and then turns and leaves as the credits begin to roll.
“Let us ask ourselves what He would wish for most,” said Bishop Brougham, referring to Jesus. “And then, let each put in his share, loving kindness, warm hearts, and a stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.”
“That’s a pretty good message to share, so at Christmastime I don’t have to get too involved writing a sermon because the story of Christmas Eve pretty much tells itself,” said Holly Nye, senior minister at the Burnt Hills Methodist Church. “There’s a core message that God’s life is incarnate in the world. He is the light in the darkness, so I try to remember that, use my imagination and prayer and see what emerges as my Christmas message. It’s not that difficult.”
While the importance of the biblical story of Jesus’ birth can’t be understated for Christians, there are other stories to tell, according to Art Hudak, senior minister at the Trinity Reformed Church in Rotterdam.
“For me, it’s a time to allow some other voices to come forward and tell their story,” said Hudak, who also serves as director of Stepping Stone Ministry, a program aimed at helping those with drug and alcohol addiction problems. “I’m very respectful and can appreciate someone who can present a masterful sermon, but it’s also wonderful to listen to someone tell us their own personal reflection on their life and stewardship. Listening, and giving people the opportunity to offer up their experience and be heard, is a wonderful part of the Christmas story.”
At St. Madeleine Sophie Catholic Church in Guilderland, the Rev. James Belogi sets aside about 15 minutes to try and personalize his Christmas Eve sermon.
“We have the four weeks of Advent and a homily each of those weeks, and the whole time you’re leading up to the coming Christmas celebration,” said Belogi. “So on Christmas Eve we follow the ritual of our Mass, but I try to come up with some sort of insight into Christmas that was different from last year. Something that is happening in the world could possibly impact the theme or the focus of the homily.”
For Lisa Vanderwal at the Lisha Kill Reformed on Central Avenue, music and a candlelit sanctuary are a big part of her church’s Christmas Eve service.
“We take different parts of the Christmas story and weave it into all the songs we sing,” said Vanderwal. “It’s one of my favorite times of the year, and between the story, the carols we sing and the way we light all the candles at the end of the service and sing ‘Silent Night,’ it’s all very moving.”
As for her sermon, Vanderwal says doesn’t try to do too much.
“I keep the message short, and I’ll try to pick up something in the Christmas story and look at it from a different point of view,” she said. “I might ponder about something, like the infant that is born and coming to save the world, or the wise men and what they might have been expecting. What was Jesus thinking about, and what should we be thinking about this time of year?”
Christian ministers do have a guide to follow if they so desire. A Lectionary is a book designed to help the clergy schedule and produce their sermons by offering a collection of scripture readings that cover a three-year period. Also, those in the pulpit have the season of Advent to consider during the course of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas.
“It’s the season of expectation and longing for the arrival of Christ,” said Levering. “We’re announcing the presence of God, and we’re building up to this great revelation. We’re also reviewing all that came before, the stories of John the Baptist and Mary and Joseph, and all the preparations that went into the birth of Christ.”
Levering added that while many Protestant ministers do follow the Lectionary, it is not a mandate and only a suggestion.
“It’s a very nice planning tool, but it’s not something we have to follow,” he said.
Hudak also uses the Lectionary schedule as a guide, but often finds himself sidetracked by other issues and more immediate concerns.
“St. Francis is supposed to have said, ‘preach the gospel, and sometimes you can use words,’ ” said Hudak, suggesting that proclaiming the gospel by example in your everyday life is better than just words spoken from the pulpit. “You live the gospel through your actions, and for us developing a safe community for people is very important. That’s what they do at places like the City Mission, and we do the same thing with our community meals. That’s our way of demonstrating the Christian message.”