As we enter the Christmas season, the church brings to a close its four weeks of Advent preparation. Advent has always been a season of waiting, watchfulness, and hope as we prepare for the celebration of God coming to us and becoming one of us in the Christ-Child born in Bethlehem.
Yet, in many ways, it seems like we have been in an extended Advent season of anticipation and waiting for months (or, even an extended Lent, since the COVID-19 pandemic came into our lives in March). We are weary of the disruptions and adaptations that have burst into our lives; there is even a word to describe this: Covid-fatigue. We are anxious as we practice safety measures while hoping that coronavirus cases will decrease. We yearn to fearlessly gather again in person and hug those most dear to us. We mourn the loss of loved ones who died from the virus, and grieve that others may not have many years left to spend holidays with their families. We pray for those who are alone, those who are sick, those who are without income, and all those in need during these trying times. Meanwhile, we live in the tension of cautious optimism as we wait for the distribution of a vaccine. Yet, in the face of all this, we are reminded of the words of the angel to the shepherds in the Christmas story: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10).
We have spent most of this year in what has seemed to be an alternate reality from what we’ve always known. This year, Christmas will also seem unreal. We used to take certain things for granted: like shopping without a mask, unrestricted travel, attending crowded social or sports events, greeting people with a handshake or hug, and going to concerts, theaters, family celebrations, and church activities. Perhaps we have even been guilty of taking the very meaning of Christmas for granted. Here the words of the angel to the shepherds are words to us as well: “Do not be afraid….I have good news.”
We have had to adapt in our day-to-day lives, and we will be adapting in our Christmas celebrations as well. Our Christmas observances and traditions will not take place in the usual way this year and may not be what we planned and hoped they would be. Many will not be able to celebrate Christmas with their loved ones. Others will be experiencing worship through technology or distancing outdoors instead of attending in-person worship. Similarly, I’m sure Mary and Joseph never planned for Jesus’ birth to happen in a stable, far from their families. Nevertheless, in spite of the pandemic, Christmas is not cancelled. The good news of great joy has not changed: A Savior is born to us. God’s promises to us haven’t changed. Emmanuel, God with us, still comes to us, to be with us, to be one of us.
Perhaps, because of this reality that Christmas during a pandemic is different, it gives us the opportunity to look at Christmas differently and see beyond the traditions and observances we’re used to having. Let us remember that there were no large family gatherings or festive worship services on that first Christmas; only two people were present: Mary and Joseph. There were no choirs in that stable; just the sounds of the animals. Even the singing took place elsewhere, in front of shepherds outdoors in a field. There were no decorations, but a Christmas star shone brightly in the sky. There were no Christmas lights; but Jesus, the Light of the world, the Light no darkness, and no fear, can overcome was there. Even the shepherds who rushed to see the Christ-Child were doing this for the first time; there were no Christmas traditions for them to follow. Their worship on that first Christmas was simply to personally encounter our awesome God coming in the person of baby Jesus, give glory to God, and tell that good news to others. And it’s precisely this kind of connection to God and others that we are called to have as well.
We have seen our relationships to God and others deepen during this pandemic. We have learned new and creative ways of connecting with one another and caring for one another in Christ’s name. We have seen these connections grow and make it possible for people to worship, serve, and proclaim to others the love of Christ in new and innovative ways.
Let us trust God to give us not only the strength and hope we need to endure this pandemic and all its challenges, but the resilience and perseverance to reflect God’s love for us by showing love for our neighbor. The true meaning of Christmas must not be taken for granted. Christ was born that Christmas Day and became one of us because God loves us and does not abandon us. Our celebrations may have changed this year, but Christmas has not changed in spite of a pandemic. We are still recipients of the greatest Christmas Gift of all: Jesus.
May the words of the Christmas angel bring you comfort and great joy. “For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). May the blessings of the Christ-Child fill you with peace, hope, and joy, and may the light of Christ shine in your lives in the coming New Year!
+Bishop Wilma S. Kucharek