Intuitively we are all wired to look for refuge at Christmas: A bit of peace, a relief from the routine, freedom from strife, protection for the poor, shelter for the homeless, reconciliation between those at war with one another (wars both large and small), healing for the sick, comfort for those who grieve.
It is a very human thing to long for those things, and there are very good reasons theologically to long for them. The first coming of Christ, the birth of the Christ child, signals the coming of the Kingdom. But the celebration of Christmas marks the dawn of that reality, not its completion. And Christmas does not give us a “pass” on life’s challenges or the freedom to ignore the need around us.
To the contrary, the celebration of Christmas is meant to ground our lives in an awareness that the world is not yet what it should be. It is meant to strengthen our resolve to confront those challenges, and it is meant to remind us that with the coming of the Christ-child, who is “Immanuel” – God with us, in it, all the way – that there is reason to hope that effort is not in vain. To think otherwise, then – to seek escape, to ignore life’s realities – might be thoroughly human, but to surrender to that impulse is a failure of nerve and above all, an act of faithlessness.
With that realization in mind, the pervasive impact of Covid-19 on our world at this time of year presents a special spiritual challenge. Its existence is not the will of God. The loss of life and distress that it has inflicted is not God’s doing. But we should let it radicalize our celebration of Christmas.
As a shared and global challenge, we should be reminded at this time of the year of the transcendent and timeless realities that we share:
- The spiritual, physical, and emotional needs that are part of the “human condition”
- The universality of loss and grief
- The inevitable impact that our behavior has on one another
- Our dependence upon one another
- And – ultimately – our dependence upon God
These are truths that we ought to lean into at Christmas, rather than attempt to escape.
We should be far more concerned about the romanticized nullification of Christmas, than we are about the so-called war on Christmas. We should be far more concerned about the self-invested way in which we celebrate Christmas than we are about the annual nay-saying rituals of atheists. We should be far more worried about our own faithlessness than we are about the willingness of the world to defend our faith. And we should be far more concerned about the way in which Christians treat church as a consumer product, rather than the outpost for God-given mission that it is meant to be.
So, this is my prayer and benediction for those of us who celebrate Christmas this year in the shadow of the pandemic:
May the lonely obedience of his mother, the God-bearer prompt us to listen,
May the self-emptying of the Christ child prompt us to self-giving,
May the solidarity of God with us, inspire us to come along side those who are defenseless,
May the devotion of the shepherds and kings prompt us to follow,
May the word of hope spoken in a world marked by hopelessness give us courage,
May the work of the One begun in Bethlehem shape our life’s efforts,
May the peace of Christ which can only be found in doing his will fill us,
And may the blessing of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
be among us and remain with us always,