I was glad when they said to me, "Let us go to the house of the Lord!" (Psalm 122:1).
As life and time pass, I increasingly feel at home in church. And those feelings are rarely stronger than at Christmas.
Of course, warm thoughts about spending Christmas with family in your own house, exchanging gifts and watching the kids' faces light up, are powerful. Bing Crosby struck the right chord of longing in "I'll Be Home for Christmas."
But what about longing for the Lord's house? After all, Christmas is about the birth of Jesus Christ.
On Dec. 2, the first Sunday of Advent, the Rev. Harry Schenkel, pastor at St. John's Lutheran Church in Sayville, hit on this in his sermon. He defined life as "a walk to our final destination," observing, "Of all the walks that happen around Christmas, what's any better than when it snows and you walk through a winter wonderland to a loved one's house to celebrate the joy and peace of this season? Of all the walks that we take in life, there is no better destination than walking to the house of the Lord."
At this time of year, there are special events to take in while on this walk. St. John's, for example, was overflowing on Dec. 9 as costumed children told the Christmas story during a Sunday school service.
Later that same day the walk continued to St. Mary's Church in Amityville for an Eastern Orthodox Christmas concert by the Spirit of Orthodoxy Choir. The 22 voices offered a beautiful mix of a cappella music, from Ukrainian carols to traditional Western Christmas hymns.
All of this is enjoyable, even precious. But there are times, naturally, when reality at Christmas fails to meet our lofty expectations. Perhaps there isn't complete peace at the family gathering. Maybe the unusually crowded pews and other distractions cause frustrations at church.
That's why it's critical to stay focused on why we celebrate Christmas. Nothing in this world is perfect. We are all sinners - inside and outside the church - needing the love, forgiveness, redemption and salvation offered by the babe born on Christmas, who would suffer, be nailed to a cross and conquer death.
So it's not just about feelings, which are fleeting. The Rev. N.T. Wright, an Anglican bishop, advised: "The closer you get to the truth, the clearer becomes the beauty, and the more you will find worship welling up within you. That's why theology and worship belong together. The one isn't just a head trip; the other isn't just emotion."
Through God's grace, our faith and reason draw us to church, and we are enriched. With hope, the Christian walk leads to standing shoulder to shoulder among the pews today or tomorrow (and why not the rest of the year?), worshipping God - whose promise far exceeds any of our Christmas expectations.
Raymond J. Keating is a columnist with Newsday and the editor and publisher of the "On the Church & Society Report." To receive a free four-issue trial of "On the Church & Society Report," send an e-mail request to ChurchandSociety@aol.com.
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