By Rev. Canon Keith Nethery
As we begin the final month of 2020, people are, no doubt, still touting this as the strangest year on record, mostly due to the evil COVID 19 pandemic.
As I write this, more than a month earlier that you will read it, there is no clear understanding of what Christmas will look like in 2020. I’m quite sure there will be great angst about what we will do, how we will do it, and will anyone come to see it?
Perhaps we need to take a rather dramatic step back from our need to score a cheap victory over the nasty opponent cloaked in a virus too small to be seen, but powerful enough to change not only lives, but the world as we know it.
In fact, nothing will change about the true Christmas. Given that we are mostly certain that Jesus was not born on December 25, we will again mark a symbollic entry of God into human form, in of all places a barn! Then again, we’re not really sure about the nature of the structure in which He was born, nor do we have great certainty about the details leading up to said birth. Mark was so enthralled with the story that he left it out of his Gospel. Luke has a prominent role for angels and shepherds to play; carries forth our deep love of a good census and has Jesus frolicking in a manger; but apparently not waiting for Magi or Wisemen, or whatever they might be referred to. Matthew is the one for whom the camel riding, gift bearing threesome is important. Except it doesn’t say anything about how many came riding or what they travelled upon. COVID-19 can not do anything more to mess up the story than we have by mashing together several versions and insisting on carrying on traditions that are demonstrably not true.
Perhaps instead, the pandemic will help us to toss aside some of the less than crucial portions of the spiritual and secular traditions and allow us to have an up close and personal look at reality.
First, the spiritual understanding. For more than two decades I have come to understand Advent and Christmas as pointing me in the direction of understanding God’s entry into human history. But God doesn’t make it so easy as to simply walk through the Norman Rockwell painting and into the living room of Christmas. There is a place in our lives for comfortable and quaint traditions, but Jesus birth isn’t one of them. When we get hung up on the details and ignore the beating heart of true faith, we are sliding down a steep hill on a sled with a badly warped runner. It all became real to me when God finally got through to me that the words and the stories won’t get me there. The truth is, we can’t say for certain just how Jesus got here. But we do know that the arrival took place, and that I it has changed the world. My spiritual Christmas has long since stopped being about traditions and morphed into a combination of the wonderful sense of expectant anticipation of Advent and the deeply spiritual question of why God chose to come to earth and the nearly endless possibilities that spring from that question. Now I’m not the Grinch (although I have been accused of playing the role) who wants to take away Christmas carols and Nativity pageants and the sensory overload of Luke’s magnificent drama read on Christmas Eve. I just want you to consider getting past the tinsel and lights and get to the “faith” story of Christmas.
Now a less charitable look at the secular celebration. I am in great anticipation of COVID putting the brakes on the all out commerical extravaganza that exists mostly to make CEO’s of significant corporations much wealthier. In this I am a Grinch. I can’t be bothered to wrestle a ladder from the back of the shed to freeze my fingers in affixing a string or two of lights to parts of my house that are reluctant to allow me to do so. Any television channel that starts showing Christmas movies in months not named December, will find that my nimble fingers will guide my TV remote away from their numbers and thus make a plea, via a reduction in ratings by one, for them to stop the secular suck up to those peddling more more more at Christmas. I truly believe that the commercial nature of Christmas has gone past the point of no return, and only a complete revitalization based on anything other than profit and greed, will bring me back to any significant participation in what most definitely in mind is no longer Christmas.
So yes, the pandemic has done a number on a lot of things that we know and love. We have missed out on many things we wanted to participate in. We have watched things change multiple times in a very short period. There have been days we’ve gone from terrified to hopeful to all points in between in a 24 hour period. There has been little sense of normalcy and it has been hard on us.
Rev. Canon Keith Nethery is the rector at St. James’ Westminster, London.