Monday, December 27, 2010

At midnight or morning, Southern Tier Christians gather to celebrate

By William Moyer • •

December 24, 2010, 3:25 pm

By simple subtraction after the diocese closed six churches since 2000, local Catholics had fewer options for Mass on Christmas Eve.

Despite the closings, mergers and other reconfigurations in a massive downsizing, however, Catholics still flocked to traditional midnight Masses on Friday in Broome County.

"We have nothing to show total attendance at midnight or others Masses on Christmas Eve has decreased since we closed churches," said Danielle Cummings, director of communications for the Syracuse diocese, which includes Broome County.

"What we've seen in recent years is Mass at different times on Christmas Eve to accommodate people's needs," added Cummings. "In some cases, the time has changed from the typical midnight Mass or parishes have added earlier Masses."

In recent years, the diocese closed St. Rita in Chenango Forks; St. Stanislaus in Dickinson; St. Joseph and St. Andrew, both in Binghamton; St. Christopher in Castle Creek; and Christ the King in Endwell.

Still, at least 11 remaining Catholic churches in Broome County held traditional midnight Masses: Sts. John & Andrew, St. Mary and St. Patrick, all in Binghamton; Our Lady of Good Counsel in West Endicott; St. Ambrose, St. Casimir and St. Joseph, all in Endicott; Holy Family in Endwell; St. James in Johnson City; Our Lady of Sorrows in Vestal; and Our Lady of Lourdes in Windsor. Mass, either at midnight or earlier, remains important to Catholics, said Cummings.

Christians in the Southern Tier and elsewhere awake today to celebrate Christmas, one of the holiest days in Catholic and Protestant churches.

Most churches observed Christ's birth with an assortment of Christmas Eve services on Friday night. Many included candle-lighting ceremonies to symbolize Christians' belief that Jesus is the "light" of the world who was born in a manger to overcome the "darkness" of sin.

Despite a overall decline in organized religion in the past two decades, Christmas remains a religiously significant observance, according to the Rev. Stephen Starzer, pastor of Conklin Presbyterian Church.

Attendance at the church's two Christmas Eve services has remained steady in recent years, said Starzer.

"You come to the end of the commercialized Christmas and ask, 'There's got to be more to it than this?'" said Starzer, who's been pastor at Conklin Presbyterian for 20 years. "Christmas Eve remains important. People come to give pause, sit, think and hear a different message about Christmas."

Not all Christians celebrate Christmas today, though. Hundreds of Orthodox Christians in the Southern Tier will observe the Feast of the Nativity on Jan. 7. Commonly known as Orthodox Christmas, the date for this celebration is set by the older Julian calendar.

Christmas came early Thursday for inmates at the Broome County Correctional Facility in Dickinson. They received gift boxes from the jail ministries program of the Broome County Council of Churches.

About 450 inmates received gift bags with cookies, chips, tissues, candy canes and other small items donated by local churches, schools and civic organizations, according to the Rev. Cris Mogenson, chaplain.

"This is reaching out to a part of our community that is forgotten a lot of the time, much more so this time of the year," added Elizabeth Hayes, jail ministry re-entry program coordinator.

A white Christmas is unlikely, according to the National Weather Service at Greater Binghamton Airport. The forecast for Christmas is cloudy with a high temperature near 30 degrees. The last significant snowfall on Christmas Day was 12.7 inches recorded on Dec. 25, 2002.

Although the actual day when Jesus was born is unknown, Christmas evolved into a Christian celebration of his birth in the centuries after his death to coincide with secular winter festivals. Christians eventually fixed Dec. 25 as the permanent date for their observance

According to the Association of Religion Data Archives at Pennsylvania State University, roughly 108,200 of Broome County's estimated population of 196,000 residents identify themselves as Christians, including mainline Protestants, Evangelicals and Catholics. In Tioga County, about 18,000 people among the estimated population of 51,000 are listed as Christians.

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