(Photo: Sue Careless)
WHY IS IT that we often enter Advent with more sighs than smiles? Weariness and not joyfulness often characterizes our December mood. It’s hard to focus on the coming Messiah with so many other things demanding our attention. That reality is why, on the second Monday of December each year, St. John’s, Vancouver holds a service called “Expecting Emmanuel: a service of comfort and hope for those feeling weary or burdened.”
When several of us involved in Pastoral Care first planned this service five years ago, we knew we wouldn’t call it a “Blue Christmas” service. Comforting as those services are, we wanted something that would be welcoming to everyone: those who wanted a space apart from the frantic pressures of the season, as well as those who were burdened with specific personal concerns. The Rev. James Wagner, our Director of Pastoral Care, describes the “Expecting Emmanuel” service as about “coming to Jesus Christ at the start of the Advent/Christmas season, in order to fix our eyes upon Him who is the author and perfector of our faith and hope, when it seems circumstances may work against us.”
Although some in the parish think of “Expecting Emmanuel” as a once-a-year event, it really is part of a twice-monthly service we hold nine months of the year, called “Keeping Company with God: rest, reflection and restoration at the end of the day.” These are liturgical services which use prayers from Evening Prayer and Compline along with other prayers, ancient and modern. Times of silent prayer as well as opportunity to pray privately with members of the Prayer Team are provided at both services. We don’t have an organist or pianist available for our monthly services, but music is an important part of the special Expecting Emmanuel service.
Parishioners have told us that the service has helped them fix their eyes upon Jesus. One friend recently said, “Christmas is a time of reflection quieting our minds, focusing on things eternal. This service provides an opportunity to bring this all together.” And another told me, “It is all too easy to lose the real meaning of Christmas in all the commercial hype, the seasonal hustle and bustle and to no longer hear the great carols due to over-saturation. I was so grateful to come into the quiet sanctuary and be given the space and quiet to reflect, to collect myself, to hear receptively and to let the amazing reality of ‘God with us’ sink into my heart. I left stilled and re-centred.”
Yet we are deeply aware that many come to this service with heavy hearts. Each year we pray that members of St. John’s and visitors alike will experience the love of Jesus and allow Him to minister to them. The church runs a Grief Share program and last December some of those who had recently lost a loved one attended this service.
One parishioner who came last year said: “I was grateful for the Expecting Emanuel service offered just before Christmas. At a time when most people are happy and joyous, I felt burdened with responsibilities and strained relationships. But through this service I was able to lay my heavy heart before the Lord in a way that I couldn’t on my own. I found comfort and hope through the service and in the kindness of the person who prayed with me afterward. I came empty and left feeling filled with the Holy Spirit, and ready to embrace the Christmas season.”
We felt that it was important to pray about the concerns all of us have, such as the needs of our families, and the needs of people we might forget, like prisoners and the mentally ill:
O God our heavenly Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named; we trust to your loving care the members of our families, both near and far. We ask you to comfort all families in pain. Heal those with deep wounds and give to each a sense of your fatherly love and care. We also bring before you the members of our families who do not know you or have wandered away from you. Keep us faithful in our prayers, loving in our action and trusting in Jesus, who was born to die to save us all. Amen.
Lord Jesus, you were bound and made captive for the sake of mankind. You know what it was to be a prisoner. Have mercy, we pray, on all who are in prison. Through your Spirit, your Word and your church, may they discover your great love, and experience the true freedom you long to give them. We also remember all unjustly imprisoned prisoners of conscience and those denied their freedom because they are Christians. Be their hope and strength, we pray. Amen.
Following the homily and the hymn O Come, O Come Emmanuel, one of our lay leaders prays a series of prayers, including petitions for the weary, those who suffer from addiction, the mentally ill, and the poor. After every prayer there is a time for silent reflection and then we say together, “Come, O Come, Emmanuel, God with us.”
In our publicity for this service we ask, “Do you desire to spend some time in quiet prayer and meet Emmanuel, our God, who is truly with us?” Toward the end of the service we pray two prayers of thanksgiving to the One whose presence with us is the greatest gift of all. And we close with a blessing written by a parishioner for this service:
Gentleness of Jesus
Held in the arms of
A manger of poverty
A host of angels
The God who comes. TAP
Manya Egerton attends St. John’s, Vancouver with her husband, George, and is involved there in Pastoral Care and Prayer Ministries. She also enjoys making preserves to raise money for Living Waters Canada.