Christmas Eve came early to Grace Church and School this year. On Monday, October 19, fifth through eighth graders returned to school at 5:30 p.m., at dusk, donned their red choir robes and lined up around the perimeter of the gym, tallest to shortest. Teachers passed out battery-operated candles, and the children filed out the doors, two by two. They crossed the street, waited on the sidewalk, and then processed to the church stairs to form the traditional Christmas Eve candle cross.
Children of Grace School and Grace Church have been part of this Christmas tradition for more than 70 years. It is how the Children’s Christmas Eve Service begins in the late afternoon on December 24. This year’s cross came on a different day. It wasn’t the usual close formation; kids wore masks and kept their distance from one another because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But still, the children became an image of Christ’s light coming to a darkened world, and the image was captured on video, at ground level and from a drone that hovered high above the church tower.
The video footage will be part of a pre-recorded Service of Lessons and Carols that will premiere on the Grace River Forest YouTube channel at 4:15pm on Christmas Eve, December 24. It is Grace Lutheran School’s answer to “How will we celebrate Christmas during the pandemic?” a question that was on everyone’s mind already in September.
While the neighboring public school districts opted for remote learning this fall, Grace School students returned to their classrooms in person. A team led by Principal Bill Koehne and made up of teachers, parents, and members of the Elementary Education Committee met through the summer to establish new rules and procedures for keeping students and staff safe. This involved setting up classrooms for social distancing, planning for some students to continue to learn remotely, and writing protocols for what to do if a student or a staff member came down with COVID.
Earlier this fall Grace Church was holding in-person services of Holy Communion every Sunday, for a limited number of people who would register in advance. There is no singing in these services because of the dangers of spreading the covid virus. Grace’s livestream worship service on YouTube at 8:30am every Sunday mornings has been popular with Grace members and with worshipers from across the country; it includes sung liturgy and hymns, and often, one or more musical soloists from the same household.
A packed church on Christmas Eve? Students standing elbow-to-elbow in the chancel to sing “O Holy Night”? The traditional service was not going to be happening in 2020.
However, Grace's cantor, Pastor Michael Costello, was determined, and plans for a pre-recorded service, accommodating public health restrictions, took shape, with help from Janel Dennen, the school’s music teacher, and principal Bill Koehne. A grant from the Legacy of Grace endowment covered the expense of hiring a professional videographer. Pastor Costello recorded students individually as they sang the traditional “cross songs.” Recordings of the carols sung between the lessons come from recordings that Grace School students made at home, along with recordings from members of the Grace Church choir. Grace alum Bill Rohlfing assembled the audio track.
There was much more to film on October 19 besides the candle cross. Students in first through fourth grade came to school dressed in “church clothes” and walked through their traditional procession down the aisle, bringing gifts to the Christ Child. Second through fourth graders also recited the words of Luke 2:1-7 for the camera, in small socially distanced groups:
And she brought forth her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Pastor Lyle’s sermon was recorded, as was the reading of the Old and New Testament lessons, the responsibility of members of the eighth-grade class. Eighth grader Julia Weaver said she was less nervous reading to a camera than she would have been standing up in front of a full church on Christmas Eve. Plus, she had the opportunity to do her reading more than once.
Eighth graders felt the experience of forming the cross outside was -- different. “It was really fun,” said Anne Claud, “to see people driving by and wondering what was going on.”
Do these students plan to watch the video with their families on Christmas Eve? Jacob Hoffman thought his family would probably watch, though he thought families would mostly be waiting to see their own children’s faces in the video. Eighth-grader Max Keller has attended Grace School for most of his life, but because his family has other plans on Christmas Eve, this was his first time in the cross. Because he’s tall, he was not only in the cross, he led the procession.
Early on the morning of October 19, reflecting on the big videography day ahead, Pastor Dave Lyle reflected on the early Christmas celebration in his blog, Grace upon Grace:
Blessings come from surprising places. That’s what the Christmas story is all about, a God who would deign to come to earth. Born into oppression and obscurity, Jesus lives and dies to save us. Even in October, it’s good to hear this message. And it’s good to glorify and praise God for the good news we have seen and heard.
Goodness knows we could use more good news in these days. Keep watch! The God who was born in Bethlehem still shows up today.