In an effort to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas, several area congregations are seeking socially-distanced ways to be closer than the online or pre-recorded services allow, said various church leaders.
Several clergy from various denominations are planning some limited gatherings, unlike the complete shutdowns of services that happened at Easter when the COVID-19 pandemic infiltrated the state.
“We are hoping that our full plan will be allowed on Christmas Eve,” said Rev. Robert P. Travis a Wakefield Episcopal minister, worried that a worsening spread of the coronavirus could stymie that attempt.
He simply wants a socially-distanced “Walk-Through Christmas Communion” for an hour in the evening.
“People can greet one another with a distanced “Merry Christmas” outside after they receive communion. We hope these procedures will give people a sense of Christmas celebration while keeping everyone completely safe,” he said.
Clergy annually labor to shift the focus from commercialism in Christmas and infuse more religious meaning – an effort that has been under way since the mid-19th century.
Even Harriet Beecher Stowe criticized the commercialization in “Christmas; or, the Good Fairy.” This 1889 story in The American magazine has an early expression of this sentiment and phrase “the true meaning” of the holiday’s significance.
“..To give up one’s very self – to think only of others – how to bring the greatest happiness to others – that is the true meaning of Christmas,” she wrote.
With a pandemic putting the nation under a blanket of fear, religion has become important again in many people’s lives, said several area clergy.
That sense atop people’s minds is something clergy want to accent while the focus is there. This “true meaning” of Christmas also cements a community of awareness, which is inspired by joining together in some fashion, even during a pandemic, they said.
Travis, pastor of the Church of the Ascension at 370 Main Street St., and Chapel of St. John the Divine in Saunderstown, at the North Kingstown-Narragansett border, said being together will center on communion being offered at both of his churches.
As with other churches in the area, his, too, will have directions to follow for those attending.
“Individuals will walk up to the priest at the church door who will have gloved hands and will be sanitized after each guest and who will hand them a consecrated, pre-wrapped communion host and offer a verbal blessing,” he said.
When leaving after receiving the blessing, the individual follows exits in a way that avoids others coming for communion, he added.
Rev. Caleb Morgan at First Baptist Church and Rev. Marcel Taillon of St. Thomas More Roman Catholic Church, both in Narragansett, said they also will have socially-distanced services on Christmas Eve.
In addition, St. Thomas More will also have Masses on Christmas Day, said Taillon, who has long pushed to allow the limited gatherings in his parish, which include St. Veronica’s Chapel in Narragansett.
These three clergy, along with others, including Rev. Fred Evenson at Peace Dale Congregational Church South Kingstown and Rev. Jan Gregory-Charpentier at Kingston Congregational, said services will be available online.
Morgan added with a laugh about re-arranged socially-distanced seating, “Some days we miss the old pews, but these days we praise God for the chairs.
Both Kingston and Peace Dale congregational churches also plan to have outdoor luminary paths or demonstrations for people to visit or drive by.
Evenson said, “There will be a looping video of our faith stories performed by our youth describing Jesus’s birth. While the church sidewalks and driveway will be alit with luminaria celebrating the Light shining in the darkness, Christmas music will be played bringing comfort and joy.”
At the “Lights of Hope: Peace Pathway” at Kingston Congregational, there will be “walking and driving through, with dedicated luminaries in white paper bags with sand and LED tea lights in the name of loved ones, hopes/prayers/dreams for a brighter 2021,” said Gregory-Charpentier,
For more details, reservations, dates and times about services as well as any other activities, church members and the public should visit churches’ websites for more information, the clergy said. The websites will also include any updated information due to changes in schedules.
Drawing the faithful to a central message about giving, hope, life, salvation and denominational roots on the meaning of Jesus Christ’s birth, these clergy have long pondered the right message for a pandemic era.
“This year, perhaps more than most, the message of Emmanuel, “God-with-us,” is the essential good news of our Christian faith, a God who enters into our real world lives, to bring healing and hope to a sometimes heartbreaking reality,” said Gregory-Charpentier.
Taillon, as did the other clergy interviewed by The Independent, blended the sense of past challenges with hope, faith and determination.
“The real Christmas story was one rooted in challenges. Mary and Joseph could not secure room to have their child, the deaths of the Holy Innocents in Bethlehem that would follow and an escape across the border to Egypt,” he said about his message.
Morgan said he plans to talk about the birth and death of Jesus Christ as a coming together for salvation.
“I will extend his offer to any who would hear it this Christmas: His life for yours; his death, your peace. The anxiety of the day may be COVID, and a looming vaccine may squash that. But the anxiety of the soul is not so easily vanquished. And I believe Christ and his cross are the cure. Jesus is our pathway to peace,” he said.
Accenting a similar theme, Evenson at Peace Dale Congregational said, this year “has been breathtaking in many unfortunate ways” and that his service aims to “allow us all to stop for a moment to catch our collective breath and realize that our very breath is a gift from God.”
“Part of the reason I’m focusing on breathing is because COVID has forced us to be more aware of the essentials of life,” he said, adding that the service will revisit “the inspiring story of God in each one of us, that God might dwell in all of us.”
Travis, pastor of Wakefield’s Church of the Ascension, said he wants his message to also focus on hope and that people’s belief in God and Jesus Christ, especially when the need is strong, will be fulfilled.
“Jesus showed us that he is able to be with us in all times and places, no matter how difficult, that he knows our struggles intimately and is not distant, but as close as we allow him to be,” he said.
At Jesus’s nativity, God took a huge risk by being born, he said, in a dark, cold time of year and in a humble stable to a poor woman and her betrothed man. He showed us that even in our most fragile moments, God will risk being with us and we can trust God’s good purpose for our lives, the pastor said.
“In this, probably the most difficult year any of us can remember, we find that the struggles of the people of God in the holy scriptures resonate with us like never before. We can see that their story truly is our story,” Travis said.
“God is still working toward our redemption today, and will surely come to our help,” he said about the message he wants his congregation to believe.