What would Christmas be without traditions? For some families, Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without decorating the tree together, or hanging the mistletoe in the front hall, or leaving two cookies and a glass of milk by the fireplace for Santa.
As a Church, we also have traditions that we observe “religiously” every year: some parishes host a Christmas fair, or begin Advent with a Service of Lessons and Carols, or collect donations to make Christmas hampers for those in need. It all culminates in the great traditions of Christmas Eve, when we witness the antics of little angels and shepherds at the pageant. Then, after receiving Christmas Communion, we dim the lights to sing by candlelight. Maybe there’s even a gentle snowfall as we step out into the crisp night air – just like the cover of a Christmas card. Many of us love traditions, and we have some wonderful ones around Christmas.
This year, Christmas is going to look a lot different. The ongoing pandemic is forcing us to celebrate in new ways. It will mean adapting some traditions and foregoing others. I know how hard it is to imagine that we won’t be singing carols in a packed church this year. I recently heard someone quip that the only appropriate carol for this Christmas will be “Silent Night”!
Over the coming weeks, I invite you to remake some Christmas traditions to fit with our changed world. I know parishes that are planning outdoor carol-singing on the church steps, ensuring, of course, that everyone is masked and physically distanced. I know of another parish that is planning a multi-generational Zoom pageant where the story of Jesus’ birth will be retold in the familiar way, but with a virtual twist. At a time of year when many people struggle with sadness and grief, are there new ways to reach out to those who are hurting and isolated among us?
However you adapt your Christmas traditions, I encourage you to get creative, not only to keep Jesus at the heart of our celebration, but also as a way of being reminded that the timeless truths of the Christmas story transcend the ebb and flow of our lives, even the crisis of a global pandemic. We rejoice at the birth of our Saviour whether the time is favourable or not. We celebrate the birth in time of the timeless Son of God through all the changing scenes of life.
This year, I am particularly reminded of the poem, “First Coming” by Madeleine L’Engle. She reminds us that God did not wait until the world was right or ready before coming among us:
He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.
He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait
till hearts were pure. In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.
He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice!
In this strange and uncertain time, in a world that seems unsteady and does not mesh, may we dare to proclaim once again that God so loved the world that He sent his only Son.
Of all the names that are used to describe Jesus in the Bible, one of my favourites is “Emmanuel.” We hear that word a lot at Christmas because that’s how the prophet Isaiah foretold the coming of Jesus (Isaiah 7:14). “Emmanuel” does not mean “God was with us.” It means “God is with us.” The light and peace that shone from the manger so many years ago continues to shine. Christmas is an invitation to allow the Christ-child to be born into our hearts anew. With all the uncertainly around us and within, the reminder that God is with us is perhaps the greatest gift we can receive.
I look forward to celebrating with you as we make new traditions for a time such as this. May the peace of the Christ-child be with you, and may the timeless message of God’s love fill the world with joy. Merry Christmas!