The first Christmas was pretty simple

Woensdregt: The first Christmas was pretty simple

Yme Woensdregt

I saw a meme on Facebook this season which says, “The first Christmas was pretty simple. This year, it’s okay if yours is too.”

I think the meme is meant to comfort us as we try to figure out how to celebrate Christmas in the midst of this pandemic. We can’t do all the stuff we’re used to doing—no parties, no Lessons and Carols, no midnight mass, no gatherings of any kind.

Let’s begin by acknowledging how sad that makes us feel. We don’t like to do that. We prefer to hide our sadness and keep things upbeat and positive. But I’m not sure that’s a healthy thing to do.

It’s healthier to deal with our sadness more openly. Let’s mourn the weirdness of this time. Let’s give some space for our sense of loss. This year, Christmas has a lot less merry in it. The holidays are a lot less happy. We are celebrating a smaller Christmas than we want.

Even in the midst of our sadness, we can’t lose sight of the simple fact that it is Christmas. Because of the darkness, our houses twinkle all the more merrily with lights. We will celebrate with fewer people around our tables, but that’s because we want to take care of each other. We won’t be partying with friends and strangers because we want to be committed to the safety of all.

In this simpler celebration, I will find some joy in the weirdness, some peace in the sadness, some hope in the midst of the fear all around us. My wish for you is that in the midst of the shadows, you will find some light. As Leonard Cohen wrote so wisely, “there is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” Through the cracks of the season this year, may the light still shine in your life.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, an appropriate carol for this year begins, “In the bleak midwinter …” Written by poet Christina Rossetti 150 years ago, this carol understands something important about Christmas. It doesn’t depend on merriment or happiness but comes in every circumstance of our lives. The Christ Child comes in bleakness as well as in joy, in shadow as well as in light. “In the bleak midwinter, a stable place sufficed”; it was “enough for him whom cherubim worship night and day, a breastful of milk and a mangerful of hay.”

Even though we can’t celebrate with a houseful of guests and tables laden with food and all the other accoutrements, we can enter into the simplicity of that first Christmas as we celebrate with a quiet heart and a peaceful spirit. As we do so, I think we get closer to the truth of that first Christmas. For Christian people, it is a celebration of the birth of a child who is named Emmanuel, which means “God with us”.

I believe deeply that God is with us always, whether we are aware of it or not. The air around us is saturated with the love of God. The earth on which we walk is grounded in the love of God. The creatures with whom we share this wonderful world are kin. The water which flows in the creeks and rivers and lakes share the same life which is given to us. Joni Mitchell sang it years ago: “We are stardust”. We are made of the same stuff as the rest of creation, and we are kin to each other. And in all of it, God is present.

The stories of that first Christmas are filled with difficulty, protest, and struggle with the imperial forces of Rome. Mary was an unwed teenaged mother. She sang of a world in which God would overthrow the powerful, lift up the humble, feed the hungry and send the rich away empty. The way Luke tells the story, Jesus was born in a place where there was no room for him. It’s a story which is bound to end in painful conflict, for Luke gives this child the titles which the emperor used for himself. Jesus, throughout his life, challenged the power of empire.

That was the world in which Emmanuel was born. The message of Christmas is that God is lovingly with us in all the circumstances of life. It’s a simple, profound, and powerful word of hope.

In her wonderful poem “The Risk of Birth”, Madeleine L’Engle writes:

This is no time for a child to be born,

With the earth betrayed by war and hate

And a comet slashing the sky to warn

That time runs out and the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,

In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;

Honour and truth were trampled by scorn —

Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?

The inn is full on planet earth,

And by a comet the sky is torn –

Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

Love still takes the risk of birth. Love continues to be born in our world. Light still overcomes the darkness. Hope still shines in the midst of the bleakness. Celebration still happens even though it is simpler.

For people of faith, this is a time to attend to justice. It is a time to live with compassion. It is a season of peace, and a time to embody joy. In this simpler celebration, we can still sing. We can still bless. We can still hope. We can still love.

Indeed, it is all the more important for us to do so. As Michael Curry reminds us, “Love must be embodied. Love must be incarnate. Love must be shown. Otherwise it’s only a good idea.”

Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook

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