The Rev. Mike Angell knows not everyone looks forward to the holidays.
As a priest in University City, he hears the stories of struggle, heartache and loss. Folks estranged from or rejected by their families after battles with alcohol or because of sexual orientation. A well-intentioned “Merry Christmas” can release a flood of memories that some people want to keep tucked away, especially during the holidays.
On Sunday morning, Angell is setting aside a traditional service for one featuring blues music. Songs that don’t push for happiness, that understand the pain.
“Churches are the primary culprits for the schmaltzification of Christmas,” said Angell, rector of Holy Communion Episcopal Church. “Calendars this time of year are full of parties and celebrations. Actually and metaphorically, it’s very sugary. This is a way to give people a space that doesn’t exist. A way to say: ‘We see you. We know what you’re going through. If you need to be tearful, you will not be looked at like you’re the Grinch.’”
Angell said the idea came from a conversation with Holy Communion’s priest associate Marc Smith, a recent widower.
“It’s been a struggle to go through the holidays as a newly single guy,” Angell said.
Smith’s wife, Mary Lee, died of lung cancer in September 2015. They were married 37 years. Smith will deliver Sunday’s sermon.
On some days, thinking of his late wife brings Smith joy. Remembering her smile, her good humor and her intellect.
“And there are other days where life just seems hollow without her being physically present,” Smith said.
Sermons should never be about the priest, Smith said. “But the ability to walk in people’s shoes is the kind of perspective I will take. To be certain, I will mention in general terms that sense of loss and how difficult that journey has been to draw them into a conversation that really will center on the Gospel.”
Specifically, what is typically referred to as the Christmas story “when Gabriel comes to Mary and informs her she is about to give birth to a child in a most remarkable way and Mary, not having been with a man, exclaims: ‘How can that be?’”
That news was certainly terrifying to Mary and her husband, Joseph, who struggled to comprehend and worried about what such news would do to their social status, Smith said. Likewise, unexpected turns in lives today also are met with puzzlement, anger or sadness.
In Smith’s case, even though he knew he would lose his wife to cancer, “I remember waking up after her death and thinking: ‘How can this be?’ With a loss of job, loss of love, challenges with medical issues, substance abuse and addiction, people ask: ‘How can this be part of this journey of faith?’”
And Smith will remind the congregation that in the case of Mary and Joseph, the good news came in the form of Jesus. Good news for those struggling today can be harder to grasp. It can be more abstract, or remain elusive. But it does come in its own form.
For the service, music will be provided by Gene Dobbs Bradford, executive director of Jazz St. Louis, and his longtime music partner, Larry Gregory. Bradford heard about the blues Christmas service idea from friend Mary Chapman, music director of Holy Communion. The request for him to play came at a time when there is not much demand for blues music, he said.
“Even when you have faith, it doesn’t mean that you’re not going to experience the difficulties in life,” Bradford said. So bringing songs rooted in hardship and challenges make sense, he said.
“There are a lot of people who look at this time with some dread,” Bradford said. “People around them telling them how happy they should be but for whatever reason they are overwhelmed by loss and sadness.”
The song list for the Christmas Eve service includes “Trouble Will Soon Be Over” and “Lord, I Just Can’t Keep From Crying,” both from bluesman Blind Willie Johnson, who also was an evangelist.
“Blues musicians cross over to gospel, so it seemed to fit the occasion,” Bradford said. “A lot of their songs really spoke to the hardship of life and how their faith had the promise that heaven was going to be a great relief for them because the trouble they were having in life was finally over.”
“Amazing Grace” and “This Little Light of Mine” also are on tap for the service.
And at least one traditional Christmas carol has made the cut: “Joy To The World.”
“They don’t all have to be sad,” Bradford said.
Bradford said instruments would be limited to his harmonica and Gregory’s acoustic guitar.
“We wanted to provide a sparse texture rather than a full band, which might feel a little too showy. We want it to be a more intimate experience and draw a lot of inspiration from the blues masters. There is so much elegance in that setting.”
Intimacy is what Angell is after. A place to honor those lost, a quiet but formal space created for those who want a reprieve when “the joy is too intense.”
Angell expects most of those in attendance to be from his congregation, but all are welcome.
“We don’t need to fill the church for this,” he said.
Just the hearts that may be feeling empty.