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For churches, busy Christmas season 'tiring … but so uplifting'

Hustle and bustle extend beyond malls and main streets

By Janene Holzberg, jholzberg76@msn.com

11:04 AM EST, December 14, 2011

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Immediately before the first of eight Christmas Eve services begins at his church, the pastor of St. Louis Parish will seek out his favorite chair and briefly, yet blissfully, nod off.

The Rev. Msgr. Joseph L. Luca finds that quick rejuvenation of the body is needed to successfully minister to the spirits of the 9,000-or-so faithful who will gather Dec. 24 at the Catholic church founded in Clarksville in 1855.

"It's a wonderful thing to build up to and it takes a lot of energy," said Luca. "It's tiring, but it's so uplifting."

Hustle and bustle aren't only the domain of malls and main streets after Thanksgiving ends.

On Nov. 27, two days after the shopping phenomenon that is Black Friday, came the first Sunday of Advent. From the Latin word adventus meaning "coming," Advent is a season of expectant waiting and preparation that is observed by Christian churches.

A tour de force of coordination and devotion, much of what takes place surrounding holiday worship services in the more than 200 churches across Howard County is handled by volunteers.

Sometime after midnight on Dec. 25, the 300-plus St. Louis parishioners who oversee the evening's details, which range from having an organ delivered to Ten Oaks Ballroom for an auxiliary service organized by college students, to decorating with fresh poinsettias and greens, will breathe a sigh of relief and rejoice in a job well done — that is until the three masses that are scheduled the next morning begin a second, somewhat more manageable, round of worship.

Though smaller in scale, the sense of busyness is no different at Christ Memorial Presbyterian Church, located on Amherst Avenue in Columbia's Allview Estates, where a new pastor will preach at two Christmas Eve services for the 477 members and return in the morning for the regular 10:30 a.m. service, since Dec. 25 falls on a Sunday this year.

One major difference in many Protestant churches is the timing of advance preparations, said the Rev. Scott Hoffman. Three dozen Christ Memorial members take part in the Greening of the Church on the first Saturday in December each year.

A 12-foot tree requires hours of attention by a team on tall ladders in the octagonal sanctuary of the church, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. Also in need of decoration are four other trees, with themes that vary from cardinals to mittens to Christian symbols called chrismons.

"The thing that struck me the most as a newcomer was the intergenerational quality of the greening," said Hoffman, who previously served as an associate pastor in Sewickley, Pa., just outside Pittsburgh. "That, and the intercultural membership here, is a sign of good health."

Food baskets, living creche

At St. John's Episcopal Church, located off Frederick Road in Ellicott City, reaching out to the community is a main thrust during Advent, said the Rev. Carol Pinkham Oak. Collecting grocery store gift cards and filling holiday food baskets is "how we get started in the season."

From that initial kickoff flow all the remaining details, such as preparing for the Living Creche, a live nativity scene the church has presented for 52 years. The crèche must be erected and costumes readied for the different shifts of parishioners who present it evenings from Dec. 24-30. Two sheep, supplied by a local farm, are kept in the scene with fencing and a space heater keeps everyone toasty.

St. John's, which dates back to 1861, holds five services on Christmas Eve and two on Christmas Day.

"I think the season's stressful since we're doing more than we normally do, and people are doing more for their own families," said Pinkham Oak, who is assisted in ministering to 2,000 members by two full-time clergy. "It's stressful in a good way — except, of course, to people who aren't feeling that this is a jolly time of year."

For that segment of the population, St. John's offered a Tidings of Comfort service on the first Sunday in December; Christ Memorial plans a similar service called The Longest Night on Dec. 18 at 5 p.m.

Grace Community Church, a nondenominational church located off Old Columbia Road in Fulton, won't offer Christmas Day worship services so church employees can take a well-deserved break, said Joe Hancock, church administrator.

"We believe in celebrating on Christmas Eve," he said, noting that the Rev. Mark Norman will lead all four of the church's Dec. 24 services.

Grace, which attracts about 3,000 worshipers on a normal Sunday and 4,000 during holiday season, kicked off its seasonal celebrations even earlier. A Dec. 3 family party was filled with craft making, cookie decorating and family portraits in front of the church's Christmas tree.

"It's such an important season that we also go all out with decorating, starting right after Thanksgiving," Hancock said. The auditorium stage is ablaze with colorful contemporary trees and bright colored lighting.

"We get a lot of new folks who come during this season and this creative flair creates a nice 'wow' effect," he said. "We try to appeal to people who've given up on church."

But it's not "just about us," Hancock said, adding that the church provides support to hundreds of families in the community during the Christmas season.

"It's all a matter of what's in our hearts," he said, summing up the holy season, "and that determines how we celebrate our Lord's birth."