Some will come out of habit—harboring nostalgia for this night. Some will act out of courtesy: "Yes, Grandma, I'll go with you." Some will be here because they enjoy the once-a-year music.
But these reasons alone do not explain why the pews will be full.
In recent years, preachers have become anxious cats. We worry over the increasing number of young people who, when surveyed about their beliefs, check "no faith whatsoever." We tell stories about churches that have closed their doors—developers turning sanctuaries into boutiques. We wonder if we are becoming "like Europe."
"Religion" derives from the Latin religare, to bind, but in New York City it seems to have lost its binding power. Almost 60% of the New Yorkers who live within three miles of my midtown church claim that they have no involvement in any faith. That's easily the highest percentage of people in any region in the country.
Yet on Christmas Eve, people will come.
Many will feel awkward. They will be unfamiliar with the motions—the standing, the sitting, the praying, the singing. Some will repress giggles. Others will dab at tears. A few will be tipsy. Some will walk out before it is over. Most will be eager to hold a candle. Nearly everyone will sing "Silent Night."
I used to resent the awkwardness of the night, the barnyard quality of it. It's a peculiar crowd and a disorderly service.
This may explain why some clergy choose this moment to chastise people for not being there the other 51 weeks of the year. I know a minister who used to remark, with a pained smile, that there were folks in attendance who think that the only flowers ever displayed in church are poinsettias.
Instead of wagging our fingers, what we really should do is marvel—at the fact that, in spite of our scandals, our hypocrisy and our ineptitude, people will still darken our doors on Christmas Eve.
Karl Barth, the 20th-century Swiss theologian who spent a dozen years as a pastor, said that the institution of the Church is grounded in a claim that seems to stand in grotesque contradiction to the facts. Still, whenever people arrived at his small church on Sunday mornings, Barth sensed an air of expectancy.
In a 1922 speech to a gathering of ministers in Schulpforta, Germany, Barth described people who come to worship as perpetual questioners who nonetheless anticipate that "something great, crucial, and even momentous is about to happen."
This is the core of religion, the thing that binds us together, the thing we haven't yet managed to quash—the expectation that something momentous is going to happen when we gather. That's why people, even the tipsy ones, will turn out tomorrow. They will come to see if angels are going to show up and proclaim (once again) that there is a God who loves us and that heaven's great desire for us is peace.
They will come, not simply out of nostalgia or courtesy or routine, but, as Barth put it, "to find out and thoroughly understand the answer to this one question . . . Is it true?"
Rev. Black Johnston is the senior pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City.