Last year people said that there wouldn’t be Christmas.
I sympathized with those statements, even though they weren’t entirely true, but they expressed lament, they acknowledged loss.
I don’t know what Christmas looked like at your house. At our house my wife cooked Christmas dinner (she is a much better cook than I am), we delivered it, along with our presents, to our kids, everyone warmed up their dinner, and we met online to share our meal. That was it. And our church services were all online.
We did not get together with my wife’s parents, nor with my sister-in-law and her children. My wife works in healthcare, so maybe we were a little stricter than some, but I think our Christmas was likely not so different from yours.
We knew we loved each other and could count on each other, but being together virtually is not the same as being together physically, eating together, laughing and crying together, and holding each other in our arms.
Now, the pandemic is not over. The church is not full, we are still wearing masks, and we give each other much room. But here we are together. Those who are participating in the service from their home and us who are here will likely all have a few more people around our tables.
We are cautious but not fearful – which is very difficult when Omicron is all you hear about –, we are thankful to be together, thankful not to be alone.
Those of us who last year cried that there wouldn’t be a Christmas were not far off the mark. Of course, Christmas is both a historic event and history-changing and no pandemic or catastrophe can change that. About 2000 years ago Jesus was born in Bethlehem and so there will always be Christmas whether we show up or not.
It is also true that God is not less present in times of trouble. The opposite appears to be true, at least when we listen to those who have gone before us, including poetry and fiction, music and song, just think of African American spirituals that came to be in times of distress greater than we can imagine. God’s reality is not dependent on whether we are in crisis or not. If anything, when experiencing a crisis we may just be a little more open to perceiving the presence of God.
We can’t wait for the pandemic to be over. We are tired of it. We want our life back as we knew it, most of all we want to be together again without fear.
It’s not that we’re not grateful for how technology has allowed us to be together when we couldn’t be together, but we want to be together. Period.
There are three Christmas stories in the Bible. The evangelist Matthew tells us about Joseph’s dilemma of finding out that his fiancé is pregnant; about the scholars from the East, the first outsiders to worship Jesus; the slaughter of the innocents by paranoid and heinous King Herod; and the Holy Family becoming refugees in Egypt.
Luke tells us of the empire that had people march to its orders, of shepherds, and of the inhospitality the Holy Family experienced, much like refugees the world over.
I read a travel report from the Holy Land last week. It spoke of the cave-pocked cliffs of Mt. Arbel just north of Magdala. I learned that twice in a hundred years, Roman soldiers shot fire into the caves to destroy Israelites who refused to give in to Roman rule. The first occasion for the refusal was the imposition of Herod as king in 40 BC, the second was during the Roman-Jewish war of the mid-60s AD.1
That is the world Jesus entered. Not a disembodied world but the world as it is, longing for peace.
In the Christmas stories of the Gospels we learn of inhospitality, of persecution, and of real people, Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, the shepherds, and eventually we learn of the disciples, those who decided to follow Jesus even before they understood who he was and in some ways perhaps even before they believed in him. They were not always sure in their faith, and they often did not know what to say or do. People like us.
But the point is that God came to us in the flesh. God did not come via video link and not as an abstraction, but in the flesh, which is how the evangelist John tells the Christmas story, “The Word became flesh.”
The early church had arguments about this, whether in Jesus God had really become human, or whether God’s Spirit had just slipped into Jesus, whether the earthly Jesus was just a shell without consequence.
But in the discussion the church affirmed that what God did not assume, God did not heal. Jesus’ humanity was essential to the enterprise of salvation, if for no other reason than that it showed that God really meant it when Jesus said that God loves the world.
And so we find that our longing for flesh and blood, for touch and tears, song, laughter and story, and our eyes meeting, our longing to be together is much like God’s longing to be with us, this day and every day.
A few years ago a notable preacher spoke of an imaginary conversation God had with the angels about how to win humanity back, about how to win our love, how to connect. She titled the sermon “God’s Daring Plan”, as the angels considered it too dangerous for God to shed God’s power and come among us as a child, born at the edge of town, a person of flesh and blood like us. God did so out of love. That God became one of us made our humanity special.
We know that being together does not leave us unchanged, at least not when we are open to one another. That too is not unlike our encounter with God. The church father Irenaeus said that Christ became what we are so that we might become what he is.
May it be so.
1Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson, https://radicaldiscipleship.net/2021/12/17/wild-lectionary-holy-land/