By Rev. Canon Keith Nethery
This is my next to last column in the Huron Church News.
As the Farewell Tour winds down, this will be the last look back. Next month some thoughts going forward.
So I retire on December 31, 2022. My last day at St. James Westminster in London is Sunday, December 25. Many have looked at me rather strangely when hearing that and wondering why I would select Christmas Day to end a 28 year career in ministry?
Well, there are two reasons.
The first is that Christmas has always been my favourite. I have so many memories, so many positive, uplifting spiritual moments that will continue to stir my faith for many years. I'll share some of those in a moment. But first, the second reason.
I honestly don't like goodbyes. I certainly find them uncomfortable in person.
In the two careers I have pursued – radio broadcasting and ministry – you enter knowing that there will be many endings. The nature of both professions is that you don't stay anywhere for all that long.
I've become all too familiar with the promises of keeping in touch, meeting down the road, being lifelong friends. Reality is it doesn't happen. We move on (in the case of radio it was more likely that “you got” moved on). There is sadness in knowing that despite best intentions, it is a parting of ways. I find that very difficult. So leave on a day that is celebratory in nature, but also a day that few people come to church. My method of coping!
My first Christmas was as Deacon-in-Charge of All Saints Medicine Hat and St. Ambrose in Redcliff in Alberta. I had no idea what I was doing. But it was wonderful.
The two churches were very different and so were the services. Bright and noisy, with kids and commotion at one; quiet and reflective at the second.
Tiny St. Ambrose would hold just 90 people if everyone squashed together. Christmas Eve always exceeded that, with people standing in the back corner.
It also provided one of the more interesting quandaries of my career. Someone took the wrong leather coat after the service. Hardly a big deal. Except the person whose coat was taken by mistake was from out of town and was leaving early Christmas Day.
Only in a small town would someone be able to narrow it down to one person who would have a similar coat. But they weren't home when we called. So we had to call family and neighbours. It was approaching 2 am when we tracked down the parish member, who suddenly recognized he had the wrong coat. It took another 45 minutes to get the two folks together to swap coats and save Christmas!!
My first Christmas in the Parish of the Thames was a marathon. With a newly minted four point parish and my enthusiasm to make a strong statement on my first Christmas, I believe I did five services and travelled in excess of 200 kms on Christmas Eve. I left home about 2:30 in a light snowfall and it was still snowing when I returned to London just shy of 2 am on Christmas Day. Yet it was a spiritually uplifting experience.
I struggled as I began to experience the reality that the late night Christmas service was growing smaller each and every year. So many memories of walking to the late night service at St. Paul's in Wingham as a boy, meant that the experience of Communion at midnight was essential to my understanding of Christmas.
The tradeoff was so many early Christmas Eve services that were full of sugar motivated kids and the excitement and colour of these family events. There is nothing like kids bouncing off the walls, pews and once or twice, even off the minister, to make Christmas vibrant and real.
It also came clear that there was a bit of a Grinch role to play. As I reflected more and more on how different the Gospel narratives of Jesus birth are, I took it as a personal challenge to ask people to go beyond the traditions and seek the meaning.
I have preached a specific sermon several times on Christmas Eve and I always find that shiver of the Spirit as I present my latest understanding of “The Christmas Guest.” It is a story about a man who expected Jesus to visit on Christmas Eve. And Jesus did so as a variety of people in need. It has brought tears to my eyes and many others.
Arriving at St. James Westminster, I was in for a whole different experience. I had heard about the Christmas Eve Jazz Mass, but I wasn't ready for the reality. With 15 cm of new fallen snow, I doubted we would be full my first Christmas. Was I wrong!!! The music, the people, the faith, the love – it was Christmas in a whole new way.
So it is perhaps fitting that I experienced Christmas Eve 2020 at St. James as well. No five to six hundred people. As COVID pummeled the community, we were forced to close the church. I couldn't let Christmas go without Eucharist; so three of us came together for a quiet and emotional service. I sat at the prayer desk on Christmas morning with nothing but empty pews as I said Morning Prayer. I even sang Silent Night because it seemed right.
So many memories! So much meaning! I have been blessed.
Rev. Canon Keith Nethery is the rector at St. James' Westminster, London.