Renewing A Christmas Eve Tradition at Richmond’s First Baptist

I’m still awash in the glow of the significance of participating in the 230th observance of Christmas at the church that sits at the intersection of Monument Avenue and The Boulevard. While much has changed at First Baptist Church, many of the traditions like Christmas Even Candlelight service have held for decades.

RICHMOND, Va.– It’s already Christmas Day here in Virginia’s capital city, my hometown and the place I have always spent the Christmas holidays.  Unlike the last decade or so, tonight I renewed a tradition from my childhood of worshipping on Christmas Eve.

Christmas Eve Service was held December 24, 2010 at Richmond's First Baptist Church. This photo was taken by Steve Perky for the church's Web site.

More than once my parents would take us (my brother and me) to First Baptist on Monument Avenue for the Christmas Eve Candlelight service. Somehow when we got older, other tasks seemed to take priority on this night.  But, less than an hour after extinguishing our candles, I’m still awash in the glow of the significance of participating in the 230th observance of Christmas at the church that sits at the intersection of Monument Avenue and The Boulevard.

As Steve Perky’s photo shows above, the sanctuary was full for the 5 p.m. service, the first two observances this evening.   I realized when I arrived at about 4:50 p.m., that my chances of finding a parking space and a seat were pretty slim.   So I decided to return for the 11 p.m. service.  Boy, I’m glad I did.

First Baptist Church is recognized as one of the city’s oldest churches and among the oldest in the state of Virginia.  It is the sister congregation to my home church, the First African Baptist Church, which is located on Hanes Avenue in the city’s north side.   Up until 1841 when First Baptist moved to a new edifice at 11th and Broad, we were one church located in downtown Richmond near what today is 14th and Broad Streets.

It is hard to believe it’s been 30 years since I participated in a dramatic production marking our mutual bicentennial celebrations in 1980.    I was only 10 years old at the time.  I played the role of a young Lott Carey, a missionary sent forth from First Baptist Church.

The walk down memory lane is not what is important tonight.

The significance of returning to First Baptist

Instead, I’m amazed at how while the pastors have changed at BOTH First African and First Baptist twice since 1980 (Dr. Luther Joe Thompson was the pastor at First Baptist at the time.   Dr. Peter James Flamming succeeded him and has retired, though he was in attendance at tonight’s service), some things have remained the same.

The old hymns, the liturgy associated with the traditional Baptist church, the unique experience of lighting candles at midnight on Christmas Eve–  all practices that haven’t changed.

The new pastor, Dr. James Somerville, connected with me in his Christmas Eve message on the expectation and anticipation that comes with preparing for Christ’s birth.  Preaching what’s perhaps the most familiar verse in the Old Testament book of Isaiah, Somerville tonight challenged the sometimes limited analyses of the Old Testament scholars.   (He’s also connected with me because he’s ALSO a blogger— a WordPress Blogger, I might add)

He connected his “Christmas Eve Meditation” to a series of Sunday sermons from Isaiah during the season of Advent, the six-week period in the Christian church that leads up to Christmas.   I can’t wait to get recordings of some of these messages.  (I see that some are available for download from the FIrst Baptist Web site)  We’ve been studying Isaiah all of this month as part of the International Sunday School Lesson.

For me, tonight’s service was not about reliving the past or reminiscing about how things once were.  It was about meeting Jesus in a different way than I have in the last decade.

It was also about looking at the role of my own choices for the holiday through the lens of 40 years of living on this earth.   It was about seeing how things have changed at First Baptist, yet how they remain the same.

Not all traditions are bad.  It’s when they limit our ability to see God in a different way that they become a problem.

A Forward-Looking First Baptist?

Clearly the people of the 2010 First Baptist Church have a young, new leader and according to the latest edition (Winter 2010/2011) of their internal publication, First Things First, a forward-looking community-centric focus.    You can see that by the faces of those who attended tonight’s service.   The diverse congregation of attendees at this 11 p.m. candlelight service would seem to reflect the 21st century church that still must remind the World about the importance of the birth fo Christ.

Thanks to Dr. Somerville, I was reminded of it — the importance of the birth of Christ– in a interesting/exciting way.    I hope that Richmond’s First Baptist and First African Baptist congregations can renew another tradition soon– that of periodically worshipping and praying together.

I have a feeling that Dr. Somerville and the First African Baptist pastor. Dr. Rodney Waller, will find commonalities in their approaches to spreading the Gospel and being a force in the Richmond community.

It’s good to be HOME.. and it was great to be at First Baptist this Christmas Eve.