Who would have thought last year, as we all prepared for Christmas, and then celebrated the coming in of the New Year, that 2020 would play out the way it has? We have no lived memory of a global pandemic, and it is so sad to see the chaos, tragedy and suffering that COVID has wrought in the lives of so many people around the world. The suffering has not been limited to the virus itself; loneliness, isolation, neglected health conditions, postponed surgeries and treatments, drug addictions, domestic turmoil, have all risen dramatically in these last several months. For every one of us, Christmas this year, and our celebrations of New Year’s will be very, very different than ever before. More muted. More subdued. More minimalist. Not only is this year affected by COVID, but I am also deeply conscious of the number of families whose Christmas table this year has empty places that will never be replaced nor forgotten.
As I look toward the twelve days of Christmas this year, two particular Carols keep rattling around in my head: the opening phrases, sung by a solo voice, of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, and one of my favourites, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’. They both convey such a sense of calm, and peace, and both speak to the very humble and ‘everyday’ circumstances in which Jesus was born. “Once in royal David’s city, stood a lowly cattle shed, where a mother laid her baby, in a manger, for his bed... He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all, and His shelter was a stable, and His cradle was a stall; with the poor, and mean, and lowly, lived on earth our Saviour holy...Not in that poor lowly stable,
with the oxen standing by, we shall see Him; but in heaven, set at God's right hand on high”.
O how we need to hear that story again this year, of all years. That story that stands outside of time, somehow, yet is deeply rooted in a time and a place. Our God did not choose a palace setting, or choose to come to us through the celebrities and movers and shakers of Jesus’ day. No. A barn, with animals, with noise, and odour, and people of no prestige or power or elevated status. People like most of us; ‘everyday’, ‘regular’ people. There is something about that story which brings so much comfort, and hope to our world, especially at the darkest times. I believe that if we keep our hearts and minds focused on beautiful, and positive, and hopeful things, that focus helps to strengthen us and encourage us, to get through the most difficult times.
Keeping our hearts and minds focused on beautiful, and positive and hopeful things strengthens us to do what we can, however we can, to help out other people too.
“In the bleak mid-winter, frosty wind made moan; earth stood hard as iron,
water like a stone; snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter long ago....What can I give Him, poor as I am? —
If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb; If I were a wise man
I would do my part, —Yet what I can I give Him, —Give my heart.” Frosty temperatures, the earth and water frozen, the days short and cold, and yet we don’t hide or retreat or hibernate - we serve. We are inspired by Him to serve others indefatigably, to give the best of who we are to God; amongst us and with each of us, regardless of circumstance. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never, and will never, overcome that Light.
There is another lesser known short prayer by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), who wrote ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ which also speaks to these odd times in which we are living;
“Lord, purge our eyes to see, within the seed a tree, within the glowing egg a bird, within the shroud a butterfly. Till, taught by such we see, beyond all creatures, thee, and hearken to thy tender word, and hear its ‘Fear not; it is I.’
So perhaps in all of this isolation, and anxiety, and turmoil, and unease, there is an opportunity to get less caught up this year in all of the cultural trappings and expectations around Christmas, and capture a simpler, more down-to-earth, purer, quieter, more, in a sense, Jesus-centered marking of this Christian celebration; to see within the seed, a tree, as it were. Perhaps we will have more time to focus on the beauty and wonder that surrounds us; the beauty of a single snow-flake gently floating to the ground, the beauty of our neighbour’s lights, the beauty we have known in the lives of other people we have sadly lost. Being so strengthened, and energized, we will find within ourselves the ability to weather this current storm, in spite of our exhaustion and the anxiety which surrounds us.
Have a holy Christmas, and safe and healthy New Year.
A servant of Christ, Brad