- The Washington Times - Friday, December 22, 2006

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A quirk in the Christian calendar in December throws many churches into chaos every seven years or so. That’s when Christmas Eve is the evening of the fourth Sunday of Advent as it is this year.

Altar guilds, acolytes, choirmasters, choristers and clergy go into a tailspin making two very different liturgical moments take place within hours of one another.

This Sunday morning in liturgical churches, the scene is muted. Few, if any, flowers adorn the altar. Church vestments are purple or blue. Advent music echoes the longing of a people for their lost home. There is intentionally no sign of the joy soon to come.

The news of Christmas, after all, is meant to be a surprise, the unexpected gift of a generous God who offers the world a child in lieu of deserved and dreaded judgment.

Normally, Christmas Eve follows several days after the last Sunday of Advent. The church has time to make the conversion to a radically different atmosphere. That’s not possible this year.

Sunday morning services are in Advent mode. By noon or so, chaos descends. Church staff and volunteers who do the endless tasks that make worship possible must transform the church into a wonderland of Christmas joy by early afternoon. They have about three hours.

They neglect their families, skip lunch, postpone last-minute wrapping and go to work. The ubiquitous Christmas pageant at 3 or 4 p.m. starts the Christmas season, followed by midnight Mass and more services on Christmas Day. There is simply too much to do and too little time to do it.

Find the creche — all the characters, animals and Jesus. Carry in truckloads of poinsettias. Polish silver. Arrange flowers. Press vestments. A cedar tree — or two — in the corners of the sanctuary fills the room with the scent of the holiday, but it must be carried in, set up and watered.

Choirs rehearse one last time. Acolytes practice. Altar guild members unpack candles by the dozen. Someone has to find the candelabra that attach to the ends of pews stowed only God knows where since last Christmas. Then it’s set them up, fit them with candles and say a prayer the place doesn’t burn down during the solemn beauty of midnight candlelight service. Somehow it all gets done.

Staff and volunteers enable the faithful to make the wondrous transition from contemplating the end of all things to celebrating the birth of a new age.

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