Thursday, 24 December 2020

Cause for hope in
the face of despair

The Irish Times publishes this full-length editorial this Christmas Eve (24 December 2020):

Christmas 2020 Cause for hope in
the face of despair


He’s making a list,
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town


If Santa Claus was making a list after his round of visits last year, then the child within everyone, everywhere, must feel we were all put on the ‘naughty list’ for some unfathomable reason. Who, with foresight or 20/20 vision, would have asked for the year we have had or the legacy it is going to leave us with?

Apart from their deep religious significance, there is an underlying psychological reason for celebrating festivals like Chanukkah and Christmas at this time of the year.

As darkness envelops us in these cold days, we all seek ways to ritualise in a sacred way our hope for light and our belief that brighter days lie ahead.

Because this has been a dark and dismal year for us – as individuals, as families, and as society – the bright promise of the Christmas message is needed more than ever.
And so, when people express their sadness at losing the opportunities to celebrate a traditional Christmas this year, they are articulating a deep need to find flickers of hope at the end of a year when so many lights seem to have flickered and then gone out.

In that sadness, they are not to be dismissed as moaners falling back on old certainties in times of uncertainty and doubt; instead, they are reaching into the deep longings of society that are best expressed when they are ritualised and sacralised.

Celebrating a ‘real Christmas’

Yet, the original Christmas story answers the many questions of those who fear they are losing the opportunity to celebrate a ‘real Christmas’ this year.

For families unable to come together because of travel restrictions, it is worth recalling that Joseph and the pregnant Mary were forced by officials to leave Nazareth and their families in Galilee. The first Christmas is a story of separation.

For people worried about isolation and not being able to visit the homes of friends and family, it is worth remembering that Joseph and Mary could find no room at the inn in Bethlehem. The first Christmas is a story of isolation.

For anyone worried about the lost opportunity to buy, wrap or share presents, it is good to recall that the shepherds in the fields only brought their own humility and love to the new-born child. The first Christmas is a story about gifts that are beyond price.

For all who are appalled by the capricious approaches to the virus on the part of the Trump administration and many other governments, it is shocking too to read of Herod’s capricious plans to wipe out a whole generation to prop up his own rule. The first Christmas is a statement that corruption and the abuse of power do not have the last word.

For churchgoers anxious about getting to the church of their choice on this day of all days, their true worship may be enriched by recalling that after the shepherds’ visit, ‘Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart’ (Luke 2: 19). The first Christmas is a reminder that true worship is not measured by the numbers of those present but by the intentions in their hearts.

Healing and wholeness

For parents and grandparents upset that they are not going to see children or grandchildren, there is a comforting tradition about the ageing Simeon who welcomed Mary, Joseph and the new-born Christ Child in the Temple: he was blind because of advancing years, yet he could see the future blessings this couple and this child promised. The first Christmas is a reminder that true love spans the generations and does not depend on physical sight to be seen and expressed.

For frontline workers, all in hospitals and care centres who hope for a miracle cure to end the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a reminder that research, science and medicine are gifts brought to the crib in the form of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The first Christmas is a story of healing and wholeness.

For families concerned about emigrant and exiled family members, they may find parallels with the family that was forced by circumstance rather than by choice to flee into Egypt. The first Christmas is a reminder that we must find hope in unexpected places.

For homeless families, for refugees, for asylum seekers, for all in direct provision, for everyone who has lost their job, the starkness of the first Christmas story is a lived reality, and yet it offers hope in the face of despair.

And, for all who ask where God is in the midst of our present crises, Christmas offers the deep truth that God is found in birth, in new life and in the simple, unconditional love that a new-born child offers.

‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ (John 1: 4).

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