Wednesday, December 21, will mark the fourth year for Saint Thomas of Canterbury Parish’s Longest Night Prayer Service, sponsored by the parish’s Bereavement Support Ministry.
December comes with conflicting feelings for many people.
Shopping malls, workplaces, and our homes can be filled with Christmas songs that presume the season to be a joyful time for all. However, for those who have lost a loved one, the season often heightens the sense of emptiness brought on by that loss. When everyone seems to be singing Joy to the World, those who still grieve might feel left out of the song. The time before Christmas can be a season of opposing emotions.
Four years ago, Saint Thomas began the Longest Night Prayer Service to recognize that Advent and Christmas is a difficult time for some people. December 21 is the longest night of the year — the Winter Solstice —, and the sadness and emptiness that comes from grief can seem for many to be like the longest night. The prayer acknowledges that feeling sad and empty while others seem happy and joyful is okay.
The pastor, Father Dave Mercer, says, “At our first Longest Night Prayer Service before Christmas of 2013, a woman whose husband died a month beforehand came, sat toward the back, and cried nonstop. One of our bereavement team members, Frank, whose wife had died years before, simply sat with her and held her hand. Seeing that while leading the prayer, I knew that the prayer service was meeting a real need.
“I also met a man who told me he came to remember a friend who died forty years earlier. That told me that the long night of grief can last a lifetime.
“After that Christmas, my elderly mother’s health began to decline. When she died in May, I experienced the emptiness and sadness of grief like I never had before. When December came around, I felt the conflict of mixed emotions that can be part of the Holiday season. Our Longest Night Prayer Service that year was as much for me as it was for anyone else in the church that evening.”
The service begins at 7 p.m., and all (parishioners and nonparishioners, Catholics and non-Catholics) are welcome. As folks arrive, they receive a candle and a heart and are asked to write their loved one’s name on the heart before placing both in front of the altar. Prayer continues for about half an hour and is based on vespers, the Church’s evening prayer, using the Psalms which are wonderful for acknowledging the range of emotions we feel in life, including sadness and emptiness.
Song, moments of silence, Scripture, and a short reflection complete the prayer service. And yet, some who gather prefer simply to listen quietly. When prayer has ended, people may take their candles and hearts to be part of the Christmas setting in their homes. The Bereavement Support Ministry team then offers the hospitality of a simple snack in the hall and a chance to talk with others about the loved one they miss at Christmastime.