Well no matter how much we plan or hope or buy, Christmas this year—in 2020—is destined to be a Christmas like no other. We’ve already had 10 months of unexpected and trying circumstances, and now, as Christmas grows close, the pandemic is impacting even our best-loved traditions. The family events that are such a big part of our holidays—gift giving, caroling, sharing a big holiday meal—may not happen at all this year. Scientists and leaders are asking us to press pause on our much-loved holiday plans so we can do our part in protecting each other and slowing the spread of the virus.
That means many people are already starting the holiday with some measure of disappointment. We know it won’t be a “normal” Christmas, no matter what we do. And disappointments—even in normal times–sting a bit more than usual this time of year. Our high hopes for a “merry Christmas” set up an expectation in which anything less than “merry” feels awful. If we’re hurting or struggling, if we’re sick or we’ve lost someone dear, if we’re worried about our finances or our children, Christmastime seems to put a spotlight on our pain, reminding us of the sparkle we don’t feel, the joy that seems just beyond our reach in our current circumstances. Instead of feeling the usual happy excitement of the season, we may feel out of sync and sad. We try to put on a happy face and do our best, but Christmas cheer might feel missing for some. Unfortunately that may be the reality for many, many people this year.
But no matter where our emotions are this holiday, the good news—and there is good news–of love, of light, of God’s presence with us is something worth celebrating. It always arrives, it’s always available, whether we’re hopeful and happy or anxious and miserable. God’s love pours our way—through the shining of the star and the radiant eyes of the baby in the manger, through the quiet leadings in our hearts—every year, every day, every moment without fail. No matter how dark and dismal our inner landscape might feel just now, God faithfully, consistently gives the light to show us the way. To let us know God’s near. To give us hope.
You may have heard that this year, astronomers are predicting something new: Tomorrow night, on the winter solstice—December 21—a rare celestial event will occur in the western sky. Around twilight, Jupiter and Saturn, the two biggest planets in our solar system, will appear right beside each other, with only .1 of a degree separating them. It’s been 800 years since they were that close together and people are wondering whether the two planets will be so close might look like one big star—our own 2020 version of the Star of Bethlehem. God knows we could use a little extra light this year. What a hopeful thing it would be to have a God’s miraculous star drawing us toward Christmas.
It’s a pretty safe bet that the shepherds who saw the star of Bethlehem two thousand years ago didn’t think of it as hopeful sign of something good. Scripture tells us they were terrified. And for good reason. These calm and common shepherds were accustomed to the quiet of the hillsides and the soft light of the stars, and now something astoundingly bright, unexpected, and otherworldly lights up the night sky. They saw, with no advance warning, the full glory of the Lord; they heard choirs of angels; and witnessed indescribable, heavenly Light illumining everything it touched.
From the moment the Light broke into their reality, it changed everything for the shepherds. They were suddenly swept up in an adventure they would talk about for the whole rest of their lives: Led on a journey to see the Christ child, the Messiah they’d been waiting for. Now they—simple shepherds—had a part to play in sharing the good news they’d witnessed: the birth of pure love in their dark and difficult world.
And even though the angel Gabriel had told Mary and Joseph about the advent of Jesus’ birth, they most likely were also caught off guard by his arrival, not expecting him to be born while they were so far from home. Nothing about this birth would be normal, what would have been expected, then or now. Mary wouldn’t have the women of her family around her who could help take care of her and the child; Joseph didn’t have friends nearby who could reassure and comfort him as the labor continued. None of them would have the comfort of home, the reassurance of family, the ease that comes from being in a place you know with people you love and trust.
And what about the larger landscape of the time, with the unrest and power struggles in the land, the oppression that continued, the uncertainty and division that characterized their lives. How could love so innocent and pure be born into such a time? We might ask the same: Our landscape today is not so different, with all the rancor and division we hear and read about, such unease and uncertainty. Just an astounding loss of life and millions of people heartbroken and grieving. How wonderful would it be to see a Christmas Star right about now, to find the beacon that would draw us back to the birth, the arrival, the existence of pure love—born today and every day, even in this unexpected and often disappointing world.
And perhaps that’s the gift this Christmas offers us that is unlike any other. Yes, it has been a difficult and painful year, and it’s not over yet. And yes, we’ve been continually adjusting and adapting, quarantining and grieving And pure, true love—love that is God reaching in a real and tangible way into each of our lives—is still a reality, still being born in 2020 and beyond. Without getting caught up in the outward trappings of the holiday that we enjoy in a normal year—the busyness and the celebrations and decorations and fun—perhaps this year, our Christmas will be about approaching the manger ourselves, each of us, making real and lasting contact with divine and pure love, and offering the baby whatever gift we have to give.
Have you ever wondered what that first glimpse would feel like, peering into the manger and looking into the eyes of pure love? The sweetness of the face, the gentleness of them moment. Artists across the years have painted their ideas of the infant Christ many times; he often looks wise, even as a newborn, and he might have a halo or a transcendent glow. I think however the baby appears in our hearts, we would feel that sense of pure perfection, the enveloping innocence, the trust and complete peace of this tiny, precious being fully secure and forever One with heavenly love.
What might we carry with us to give to this pure ray of Love we find lying in the manger? We might bring our wonder that the sense that such perfection can be born into a world such as ours—and that we would be so blessed as to find it. We might bring hope that this year Christmas will be born in us in a new and truly lasting way. That we’ll emerge from the holidays with a deeper understanding of true love, forgiveness, and grace. We might bring a gift of gratitude—our thanks that a love so pure and so eternal even exists for us, spanning all time and wrapping around our globe, heart by heart by heart.
We might find, gazing into that perfect tiny face, that certain things in our lives—mistaken ideas that have held us back and divided us, things that have made us cynical and suspicious, hurts that were hard to forgive—they all simply melt away in the presence of a love so divine, so personal, so free. As the poet Rumi has said, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” In the presence of the Christ child, perhaps all those barriers would simply fall away like they never existed–they were imaginary barriers to love, never real at all in God’s realm. Embraced by his peace, we would feel our hearts come to life again, healing old wounds, touched and transformed by the presence of divine love.
The scripture says that Mary treasured all the events of that first precious day in her heart—she knew what the angel had told her and she knew that what had been foretold had now come to pass. This tiny newborn baby—born into a time of darkness and disappointment—was the perfect embodiment of God’s ever-present, ever-new, ever-healing love. At the close of this part of the story, the shepherds return to the countryside, heading back to their normal lives, “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”
Can’t you just imagine them walking over the hills, leading their sheep, their faces beaming and their hearts full, telling each other over and over again what they had witnessed together that night. It makes me wonder, on our way back from our encounters with the holy infant, who will we meet and what will we say? Will they know from our faces, from our words, from our smiles that our hearts have been made new?
It would be a wonderful Christmas this year, wouldn’t it, if the most important gift we receive is a new and lasting touch of God’s love in our lives, opening our hearts where they’d been closed before. We might find it easier to welcome others and forgive and laugh. Maybe trust will return, or grow for the first time, and we’ll let go of old grudges and judgments. Maybe this Christmas is the year we come away from the manger with a new understanding of just how deeply God loves us—so much that he would come to be with us as a child, born into a world in desperate need of love and grace.
So even as folks begin to celebrate the end of 2020, I hope that before we turn the page on the calendar, we’ll take this chance to reflect on and receive all the gifts that our challenging circumstances are offering us. God is still here, born anew in love with each breath we take. That’s something to celebrate. God is still leading his people himself, day by day and prayer by prayer. That is definitely something to celebrate. And God’s pure, radiant, healing love—born so long ago in an old abandoned manger—is still making even the most injured and jaded hearts new. That’s not only something to celebrate—that’s something to pray for, the whole world over.
Merry Christmas, Friends. May God bless your Christmas this year in a special way, like no other.
- OT Psalm 136: 1-3
- NT Luke 2: 1-20