There’s no way that Christmas will be the same this year. Too much has changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Too many lives have been turned inside out because of illness, social unrest and economic hardships.
The way we celebrate Christmas in the Year of Our Lord 2020 will have to reflect the reality we have been living for most of the past year. The season that traditionally brings us closer together must now be a time of social distancing. Large gatherings of family and friends are out of the question this year. Even our liturgical celebrations must be different — no crowding into church for Christmas Eve Masses, no choirs leading us in singing Christmas carols, and no exchange of Christmas peace with anyone except close family.
There’s no question. Christmas will be different this year. But if we open our minds to new possibilities, it will still be Christmas. If we allow the Holy Spirit to enflame our hearts, we can still experience the unique joy of this season. The spirit of Christmas is larger and more life-giving than we can imagine. It finds its way into the most unlikely places, and it has the power to overcome the most devastating calamities — including wars, famine, extreme poverty and even plagues like COVID-19.
Christmas is resilient. It refuses to be deterred by natural disasters or man-made catastrophes. Why? Because Christmas is, above all, an act of God. We don’t make Christmas, God does. As we read in the famous passage from St. John’s Gospel (Jn 3:16), “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” Nothing that we can do — and no illness, disease or infection that is thrust upon us — can prevent the Son of God from coming into our lives, and into our world, if we allow him.
Christmas celebrates the joyful mystery of God’s closeness to us. Emmanuel, which means God-is-with-us, comes to give us hope and to free us from every form of slavery and imprisonment. We need God’s closeness more than ever this year. We need to know that we have the kind of hope that can transform our troubled country — and all nations and peoples — into a land of peace, fraternity and mutual respect. We need to be reassured that God has not abandoned us and that he remains with us as one who knows our suffering even as he brings healing and comfort into our weary world.
How is this possible given our circumstances today? First, we need to let go of Christmas Past. We need to focus instead on the best ways to celebrate Christmas Present, the best ways to express our love for one another and our commitment to the peace and joys of the season. Staying close to family and friends does not require large gatherings (as much as we hope they will be part of Christmas Future). An authentic observance of Christmas simply requires us to care for each other, to communicate with each other using all the instruments at our disposal, and to worship together by celebrating (remotely if necessary) the Nativity of the Lord with heartfelt gladness.
How often have we expressed our disappointment with the commercialization of Christmas? How often have we longed for a simpler, purer celebration of the true meaning of Christmas? Now’s our chance to actually do it. Now is the time to forget about the superficialities of the season, and to give ourselves completely to the most fundamental Christmas gifts we can give: love, friendship, communion and mutual respect for everyone, especially our sisters and brothers who are poor, vulnerable or, as Pope Francis says, “on the peripheries of human society.”
Yes, this Christmas will be different. But with the help of God’s grace, we can make it a Christmas to remember, filled with comfort, joy and genuine peace.
Let’s ask ourselves: “What can we do to give hope and encouragement to others this Christmas? How can we stay close to Jesus, and to the people we love, even if we’re not together physically? And how can our prayer and worship be intensified — in spite of COVID restrictions — so that we experience the spiritual benefits of the Christmas season in new ways?
God so loved the world that he sends his only Son to us in good times and in hard times. Let’s do whatever we can to welcome God’s only Son into our troubled lives and our uncertain world this Christmas.
Dan Conway is a member of Holy Trinity Church, serves as a member of The Record’s editorial board and is a writer, consultant and stewardship educator.