I love Christmas – and all the Christmas services. Yet in the memory all too often one special service merges into another, and none really stands out. So, the question arises: how might we create a truly memorable Christmas Eve service?
I once said that I would be prepared to hang upside down and naked from a church chandelier if that would result in someone becoming a Christian. But there are less radical measures which could be just as powerful. In respect of the Christmas Eve Midnight service, I suggest that this year churches consider doing away with their cubes of bread and their unleavened wafers and instead ‘go Coptic’.
The fact is that the small tasteless ‘cubes’ of bread favoured by many Free Churches and the equally tasteless wafers favoured by Anglican churches have become poor substitutes for the bread which Jesus took and broke in the Upper Room. It is so much more powerful to have a real loaf of bread to break and share – yet even that symbolism can become a little dull.
By contrast last month I was ‘gob-smacked’ when I took part in a Coptic ‘mass’. Let me explain. Caroline and I were visiting an ancient church in Cairo. We went there as sightseers, not as worshippers, but discovered a communion service was taking place. We stood to one side, watching – and not understanding a word. Suddenly we were beckoned over and invited to go forward and receive the bread. To our amazement the priest, having checked that we were indeed Christians, broke a huge Egyptian ‘flat-bread’, and gave one half to Caroline and one half to me. Unlike Free Church cubes and Anglican wafers, which cannot even satisfy a robin, this was a real meal – for the next five minutes we were busy ‘chomping’ as we worked our way through the bread. The broken bread truly satisfied. In a new way I was reminded afresh of the words of Jesus: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6.35). Jesus satisfies our hunger for God. This was a service which I will never forget.
So, were I still in pastoral charge of a church, I would experiment one Christmas Eve with the Coptic way of breaking bread. For those who want to bake their own bread, there are instructions on how to make Egyptian flat-breads. Alternatively one could simply buy a stack of bagels or pitta bread, and in turn break each bagel or pitta bread in half. My understanding is that wafers are not compulsory in the Church of England – in the Anglican church wafers are in fact a 19th century innovation brought about by the Oxford Movement.
Word and Sacrament go, of course, together. Although John 6 is not normally regarded as a passage for preaching on at Christmas, it links with the message of the incarnation, as also with the sacrament: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6.51). Here is a great text on which to preach the Good News – and how much that is needed on Christmas Eve. In my experience the Christmas Eve Midnight Service tends to be patronised by more non-Christians than any other church service. This is a great opportunity to point out, in the words of Adolf Schlatter, that “What we have do with his flesh and blood is not chew and swallow, but that we recognise in his crucified body and poured-out blood the ground of our life, that we hang our faith and hope on that body and blood and draw from there our thinking and our willing”.
‘Going Coptic’ could make for a truly memorable Christmas Eve!