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Blue Christmas Comes to Marsh Chapel

Service to support those grieving during the holidays

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Contrary to impressions from store decorations and music, Christmas is not all joy, at least in the original telling. Matthew’s Gospel says King Herod slaughtered innocent young boys in an attempt to kill the newborn Jesus, whose family ran for their lives to Egypt. For many modern people, the Christmas season is a time of sorrow, amplifying feelings of loneliness and loss. No one understands that better than the Rev. Victoria Gaskell. “My own father died at Christmas,” says the chapel associate for Methodist students at Marsh Chapel.

Coupling Christmas with awareness that it can be a difficult time for some, Gaskell is overseeing Marsh Chapel’s first Blue Christmas service Sunday. The idea, which she says began in Canada in 1996 and has blossomed among U.S. churches in the past decade, is worship that is not “a downer,” in Gaskell’s words, but rather a joyful show of community. “It’s not going to be everybody weeping and crying,” she says.

The interdenominational service will start at 3 p.m. and run about an hour in the chapel’s sanctuary. It is open to the public.

BU Today: What is Blue Christmas?

Gaskell: Blue Christmas is a service to recognize that often the holidays are very difficult for people. That can be for a lot of reasons. Loved ones still die, people still find out that they’re sick, people lose their jobs. It’s dark and it’s cold. The relentless cheer and festivity of the culture often increase that sense of isolation. A Blue Christmas service is designed to bring those feelings of anger or grief or isolation to God and to recognize, as we see other people around us, that we’re not alone.

Last year, Brother Larry Whitney, the University chaplain for community life, and I were talking of the increasing number of students who were coming to us at this time of year. We began to think about this kind of service as a resource to people and as a sign of hope and community. When we went to Marsh Dean Robert Hill, he was familiar with this kind of work, since he had services like this in his former parish in Rochester, N.Y.

Might a service like this remind people of sorrow, exacerbating it? Wouldn’t it be better to spend that hour in a therapist’s office?

We would certainly encourage people to seek the resources and support they need. This is just something that we are offering for people who find spiritual challenges in this season. The people who are participating in the service are chosen in part because the work that they do at BU addresses some of the challenges that people might be facing. Their contact information is going to be in the bulletin.

Who’s going to be there?

In terms of participants, there’s myself; this service comes out of my work as a hospital chaplain and interim pastor. We’ve asked the chapel associate for undergraduate ministry, the associate for vocational discernment, and the associate for LGBTQ and United Church of Christ ministry to take part. The administrator for the Danielsen Institute will also be taking part, as well as a crisis counselor at Student Health Services. Then we have a couple of people with experience in spirituality and counseling and health care.

Can you give us an idea of the order of the service? What are the prayers?

The idea is that this is relatively quiet. It is hopeful and it is joyful. The call to worship is “comfort, oh comfort my people” [Isaiah 40]. Howard Thurman (Hon.’67) has a beautiful prayer that asks God to open unto him alternatives for his anger, his hatred, his loneliness, and to bring peace for him. We’re going to do some hopeful hymns that recognize God is present with us. The underlying truth of the service for us is that God understands our feelings. God has experienced that with us.

What sorrows do you think people will bring with them?

Some of the things that we deal with, particularly at the holidays: people do die, people find out that they’re ill. In a down economy, the message that gifts need to be bought and be material puts a great deal of pressure on families. In a university, there are the things about the end of semester: final exams, grading, travel plans to get to your family. It’s a very fraught time.

Is the idea to do this every year?

We’ll see how it goes. If this is something that the community finds helpful, we’re more than willing to offer it again.

The Blue Christmas Service is Sunday, December 4, at 3 p.m., at Marsh Chapel, 735 Commonwealth Ave. The service of song, scripture, prayer, candlelight, and reflection is free and open to the public.

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Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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