I changed the décor in our church the other day. I took down the Thanksgiving theme, and put up an Advent/Christmas theme.
It was a wasted effort, I suppose, because no one will see it. Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has ruled that indoor in-person events such as worship services must be cancelled to control the spread of Covid-19.
I’m not sure on what basis she – and the government – determine that selling cosmetics and houseplants is an essential service, and worship is not.
Christmas trees are an essential service. Christmas lights are an essential service; electricity companies estimate that sales of Christmas lights will rise 20 per cent this month. Christmas turkeys are an essential service – although many family dinners may be cancelled.
But Christmas worship is not.
Whatever the reasoning, my church’s local and regional authorities have accepted the ruling. There will be no in-person worship services this Christmas season.
It’s going to be hard this year to figure out what makes Christmas Christmas. Our family has traditionally gathered at the home of the youngest members, to open stockings before breakfast. Later in the morning, we opened presents. Then, with the living room littered with wrapping paper and boxes – like the families in Dylan Thomas’s famous Child’s Christmas in Wales – we played with our favourite presents. Ate our chocolates. Had a nap. Or went for a walk.
Then we had Christmas dinner. And when we were all as stuffed as the turkey had been, we felt we had properly celebrated Christmas.
When I was a child, though not in Wales, I remember having Christmas morning services. Now it’s more likely on Christmas Eve.
Maybe not a midnight Mass, but late. To welcome the child who would be born – symbolically, at least – that night.
I wonder how much of that will happen this year, between restrictions on travel and on numbers.
Yet the church is still the church, even if its building stands hollow and empty.
It symbolizes the community, even if the community is elsewhere.
So I put up the Christmas decor, symbolically, for the community that’s not there in person.
I don’t want my church to be an empty shell, like the ruined abbeys scattered around England. You stand among the abandoned stone walls, and you think, “This must have been really something, once.”
But it’s not, anymore.
Until that happens to my church, I want to ensure that it still represents something worthwhile.
The church is not a building. The church is a people, a community. But paradoxically, even if the community can’t gather, the church is still present.
I remember interviewing one of the first female priests in the Anglican Church of Canada. Mary Lucas talked about her midweek Eucharist.
“Sometimes there’s only one lonely old man present,” she said.
“And what if there’s no one present?” I asked.
“I would still go ahead,” she said. “The Eucharist is not a performance for a human audience. The audience is God.”
A night club without patrons is just an empty room; a church without a congregation is still a church. It has symbolic value.
So, symbolically, I wanted my church to look right. Even if no one sees it.
Jim Taylor lives in Lake Country.