Tidings of comfort, joy

Worship: A Columbia church holds a holiday service that offers hope for those who are dealing with loss.

December 26, 2003|By Anthony A. Mullen | Anthony A. Mullen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Christmas for most people is a joyous occasion. But for many - especially those who have suffered the loss of a loved one - it can be a time of great pain, sorrow and fear. On Tuesday evening, St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church in Columbia held a service designed for those who are having a tough time with the holidays.

Pastors Brian Hughes and Mike McQuaid created the Service of Comfort for people who are experiencing the difficulties that often come with celebrating the holidays while grieving for a loved one, enduring the pain of separation or experiencing emotional distress that accompanies the loss of a job or other financial difficulty.

"For most people, this is a joyous time of year," Hughes said. "But for many, grief, loss, separation and other difficulties make it hard to meet what some feel is an expectation of joy during the holidays. Some folks just aren't there yet."

While many Christians look forward to holiday services with joy and anticipation, some are apprehensive about having to face their first Christmas without a loved one or while going through emotional or financial tough times.

"We have parishioners and others who actually fear Christmas or who face the season with a sense of dread," said Karen Heist, ministry administrator at St. John's.

The Service of Comfort was designed to be a calm and contemplative haven as people come together to heal.

"It's a chance for many to prepare for the joy and hope that we traditionally associate with the Christmas season," Heist said. "Some will use this service as a preparation for attending a more traditional Christmas service, while others will use this as an alternative."

Decorations and lighting in the church were intentionally more restrained. The traditional pipe organ was silent as the carols and hymns used in the service were played by an acoustic ensemble. Readings were chosen that focused on the message of hope carried in the traditional Christmas liturgy. All of these elements were woven together to create an environment where people could deal with their pain.

"Our goal with this particular service is to help people get to a place where they can have a joyous Christmas," Hughes said.

A key feature of the service was the lighting of candles during a liturgy of remembering. During the ceremony, four candles were lighted.

The first candle was in remembrance of those who were loved and lost. The second was to remember the pain of lost relationships, jobs, health and dreams. The third represented the chance to remember those who had provided support during troubling times. And the fourth candle was a reminder of the hope that Christmas offers.

Each attendee was then asked to come forward to place a lighted candle on the altar in remembrance of an individual loss. All placed at least one candle on the altar, and several placed two or more.

The service also offered the chance to use Christ's birth as a chance to mend, Heist said. "Being able to name the emotions is the first step to dealing with them, and it is the start of the healing process," she said.

Included in the service was the telling of Christ's birth and relating it to the rebirth that comes after winter. Hymns provided reflection that life continues after a loss, Hughes said, and that with time, faith and God's help, all wounds are healed.

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