Don’t write off Christmas this year

In our weekly confirmation class on zoom, the students were first asked to imagine Christmas this year. What will it look like? What is the important message?

Then, we considered the first words of the angels to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid …”[1]What are we afraid of? The participants were asked to identify a picture they could find on the internet that represented their own fear. And we saw all manner of examples of what we are afraid of: large crowds, germs floating in the air, fire, accidents, the darkness. By the end of the discussion, it didn’t feel like we were talking about Christmas at all.

But maybe we were.

On the one hand, the Gospel reading for this First Sunday of Advent conveys to us a great faith that feels like certainty: “You know that summer is near as soon as the fig tree’s branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves.”[2] Jesus puts this matter-of-factly. You should know. Read the signs. It is clear. And so, have faith. 

Our spirit may yearn to echo this conviction that speaks of unshakable hope. At the same time, we may confess that in all honesty we are afraid. And we feel insecure about a future that only appears dark on our horizon. Would that we could only have this confident faith in the midst of the darkness swirling about COVID-19.

I recently heard a wonderful story of a graveside funeral service held early during the first wave of COVID in southern Ontario.  Following social guidelines strictly, the mourners limited attendance to only ten people. But unexpectedly, just as the niece was about to start sharing words of tribute about her loved one, an eleventh person joined the group.

A large golden retriever jumped the fence lining the graveyard and bolted to the group standing by the open grave.  The dog’s owner, living right beside the cemetery, scrambled over the fence and chased the dog who went straight to the niece.

The niece’s eyes widened in amazement and she held up a hand to calm the mourners who were becoming visibly uncomfortable with the intrusion of the canine. 

But the dog, upon reaching the feet of the niece, sat on its hinds wagging its tail, and quietly looked up at her. “Let the dog be,” she said with a wide smile and tears glistening in her eyes. “I was just about to say how much my uncle loved dogs. And I believe this dog knew that to be true.” [3]

In times of grief and sadness, when all is dark – don’t miss out on these moments that arrive at what may appear on the surface the most inappropriate of times. Don’t fall asleep to these moments of grace. Keep awake! Pay attention, because the Lord is coming when you may least expect it. 

How about right now? Not two thousand years ago. Not during Herod’s rule of tyranny. Not even during the Jewish revolt when Roman armies brought down Jerusalem in flames in 70 C.E. – and when most of the New Testament scriptures were first written down. “The Son of Man coming in the clouds” is a direct quote from Daniel 7:13, and the “desolating sacrilege” refers to the Maccabean revolt a couple hundred years before Jesus’ time.[4]

The point is, Christmas doesn’t direct our vision only to one point in time – to that sweet image of baby Jesus born in a manger. We don’t read scripture. The scripture reads us. As the message of Christ coming to the earth resonated with people in all the historical contexts we read about in the bible, so the message of Christ coming must resonate with us, in our time. And, especially in this COVID time. 

Don’t write-off Christmas this year just because we aren’t doing it the way always have done it. Christmas will not lose anything this year. In truth, the meaning of Christmas will have a greater potential punch in our lives and in the world this year more than in our past. 

Because the message is meant precisely for times such as these. “Don’t be afraid, for I bring tidings of good news for all people!” sang the angels. Not when everything is warm and fuzzy and cozy, when everything makes sense. And all is well in the world. But “good news” especially for dark times. When the light is most needed.

I believe we can live in confidence of faith. Because as God remained steadfast and faithful to the people over the course of all history, so too God will remain faithful through these times as well. Our faith stands on the shoulders of thousands of years of people living through good times and bad times. 

COVID won’t stop Jesus from coming. Nothing will. Not our fear. Not our failure. Not our sin. Not our bad luck nor our misfortune. Nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.[5]

Wherever and whenever love is shared between people living through dark times together, Christmas will happen. Wherever and whenever love guides those with privilege to reach out in mercy and welcome those who are on the margin, Christmas will happen. Wherever and whenever mutual love strengthens bonds of trust and forgiveness, Christ is born.

Advent is the call to action, a call to exercise this faith, this hope, that Christ will come: Come into this world, come into our lives and come through our loving deeds.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Luke 2:10

[2] Mark 13:24-37

[3] Adapted from the Rev. John Lougheed (The Delton Glebe Counselling Centre & Martin Luther University College, 2020).

[4] Christopher R. Hutson, “Mark 13:24-37” in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2014), p.63-64; the NRSV tones it down by translating it, “that suffering”.

[5] Romans 8:35-39

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