The garlands adorned with red bows decked the balcony of College Baptist Church, but the golden stringed lights lacing them remained off. The light from above only reached the fifth row of pews before receding. One by one, attendees emerged from the shadows and walked to the altar, where they lit candles, offered up silent petitions, and proceeded to Chaplain Father Adam Rick, who anointed their foreheads with oil and prayed for them.
“They’re lighting a candle as a symbol of Christ and airing out rooms in their soul that haven’t been aired out in a while,” Rick said.
Almost 50 people attended Monday evening’s Blue Christmas service at College Baptist, where they were reminded of the place for sorrow in the Christmas story and given a space to grieve amid the focus on joy and merriness that the holidays bring.
“With grief, it’s good to be able to do something with it,” counselor Brock Lutz said. “I think we usually think of candles with light and hope; so to me, there’s a certain catharsis in the symbolism of it. I appreciate that Father Adam prays right after that: We’re recognizing the pain, and then we’re going to someone to get prayer. We’re doing something very tangible.”
This is the second year the Chaplain’s Office and Health Services collaborated to bring this service to the Hillsdale community. Last year, less than 10 people came, Lutz said, adding that it was finals week and five degrees outside. This year, he said, they did a better job planning it to get it to students before finals.
In his homily, Rick mentioned two weighty days at the center of the Christmas season: The Feast of St. Stephen, which honors the first martyr on Dec. 26, and the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which commemorates the sons of Bethlehem killed by King Herod on Dec. 28.
“Real sorrow, true, deep, abiding pain and injustice is also a part of the Christmas story, and neither the church nor the Scriptures themselves have never intended to hide these from us in the name of a cheap veneer of happy Christmas,” he said. “I’m showing you a place in the story for your own grief.”
He also gave practical advice: Tell God about the pain and look to the examples of others, found in the stories of the saints and C.S. Lewis’ journals after the death of his wife, “Grief Observed.” Rather than hiding difficulties, he encouraged, people should talk to others: Just talking it through may help others understand and lighten the load.
The five fraternity brothers in Delta Tau Delta that surrounded their brother sophomore Luke Grzywacz acknowledged that the time wasn’t about them, but about him.
When Grzywacz went forward to light the candle, he did so for his mother, who died this June. He said lighting the candles reminded him of his trip to Germany in July, when he would light candles for her whenever he visited a church.
He said he really enjoyed the service.
“It felt very peaceful, it was a strange feeling,” said Grzywacz, who couldn’t remember being anointed since his baptism and confirmation. “It’s a culmination of the whole service.”
It will be his first Christmas with her gone but the second without her at Hillsdale, he said.
“The sermon spoke volumes,” he said. “Going home…it’ll be a rough Christmas morning.”
Senior Paul Keenan said he was glad Grzywacz reached out. He said when people bring their suffering into the open, it draws us closer as a community and as a brotherhood.
“You have permission to mourn this holiday season, you don’t have to put on appearances for anyone else,” Rick said in his homily. “You have permission to be sorrowful. Jesus came into this world to meet you precisely here. You don’t need to put on a stiff upper lip, he knows you better than that, he knows life’s hardships, betrayals, with perfect, personal intimacy. He experienced that himself. He himself cried out to his heavenly father in pain: ‘Oh God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ God weeps with you this Christmas season: He’s here, he knows, and he cares. You have permission to grieve.”
Lutz said the church was welcoming in its privacy and solemnity — different from a Sunday morning, where people know they will be greeted.
“To me, what I think is encouraging about seeing lots of people here is that we were able to identify, ‘I’m not the only one who feels this way during Christmas,’” Lutz said. He said there is a benefit to seeing others who have lost someone this year or struggle with family hardships.
“There’s a strength in being able to say, ‘I’m not the only one suffering through this, and I can do something with my suffering,’” Lutz said.
As the Blue Christmas service drew to a close, the attendees sang “O Come, O Come, Immanuel.” The thin voices that cracked occasionally and the single piano held the sadness and anticipation of its singers. “Rejoice, rejoice, Immanuel, Shall come to you, O Israel…”
“The service is technically over, but the ministry that Brock and I and some of the other folks on campus provide is available any time people need it,” Rick said. “I think sometimes, people think, ‘I don’t want to come forward, I don’t want to be a burden,’ but that’s why we got into the line of work, so we could help people. We are eager to come alongside and help people if we can.”
A note from Lutz: We hope that students or staff who are suffering pain or loss at Christmas or any other time of the year can utilize the many services we have available on campus — one of our four counselors, chaplain’s office, the deans, or professors:
Brock Lutz, counselor:
Fr. Adam Rick, chaplain
Linda Snoes, administrative assistant of health services (to schedule an appointment with the other counselors):