Christmas is going to look different this year.
That is pretty much a universal truth for so many people. We won’t be traveling to spend time with loved ones, we won’t be having large family gatherings in festive outfits as we exchange gifts, share food and drink and celebrate the joy of being together.
And perhaps for many of us, the deepest and greatest loss of all is that we won’t be gathered in a darkened church to see the lights turn up as we enter singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” and later watch them dim, as we sing “Silent Night,” with the church glowing in the light of only candles.
The heart of this season, for people of faith, is the story of a child in a manger, and the idea of not celebrating that in the context of worship and Communion with carols and candles, can leave a person feeling rather bereft and empty.
However, not having gathered worship on Christmas Eve is the faithful, honorable thing to do. It is not making the celebration about us and our needs but rather about the greater good, the needs of the community and the world in which we live.
As the World Health Organization has so clearly articulated, the way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to avoid the three C’s — close-contact settings, confined and enclosed spaces and crowded places. Worshipping in a sanctuary on Christmas Eve, even with limited attendance, if people want to pass the light of the candle while singing during “Silent Night” to “make it Christmas” checks at least a few of those boxes.
I admit to being very angry when I see churches trying to skirt government requirements or saying that the rules that apply to the secular world don’t apply to them or that religious freedom allows us to defy the rules of good science and public health.
The witness that presents to the world is that it is “all about us and what we want.” It flies in the face of who and what Jesus represented, with his concern for the other. The priority becomes “what I need” rather than how can I serve. Selfishness not sacrifice. The antithesis of Jesus.
Martin Luther, in 1627, wrote a letter about how Christians ought to respond to the Black Death, and his words were as relevant today as they were then:
“Therefore, I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid persons and places where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me, and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others.”
The best witness people of faith can have for the world this Christmas is not to do what we have always done but rather to show that we love our neighbors as ourselves, and so we are willing to forgo our most cherished traditions in order to promote the public welfare.
At my congregation, Emanuel has chosen to focus our socially distanced-gathered efforts on getting food to those in need through our pantry and providing meals to the homeless. We are providing a worship alternative that does not require us to be gathered together. In other words, we are seeking to live out our mission to “be in the city for good.”
Will I miss worship in church on Christmas Eve? WIth every fiber of my being. I will mourn what we are giving up.
However, the first Christmas didn’t go exactly as planned — I really don’t think a manger in a foreign city was in Mary’s birth plans. But look what came from that unexpected occurrence? Traditions and songs that have shaped how we view this entire season.
Perhaps this is the year that we can get away from what has centered our season, possibly even making an idol out of our “traditions” as opposed to the God that they reveal. For the Christ who comes in the manger is Emanuel, which means God with us. And God is with us, even if we aren’t in the sanctuary singing on Christmas Eve.
Ultimately, worship is about a focus on God, not ourselves, and so not worshiping in person as a group this year is the best way to focus on God and the mission we are called to fulfill.
My hope is that when we do return, next year, it will have an even deeper meaning to us — knowing that we gave up something we hold dear to show the world that we listen to what Christ said — that we worship God not in a place, but in spirit and truth. And that spirit leads to the truth of small family gatherings.
It is a tangible way to support our exhausted health care workers and first responders by doing what we can to avoid being part of the problem.
Maybe we’ve taken for granted that opportunity to worship and this sacrifice, to do the right thing and not contribute to the spread of COVID, will help us deepen our gratitude not just for the season but for the Savior.
Another great Lutheran, Dr. Seuss, wrote about the consumerism of Christmas in the classic “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.”
After the Grinch has taken all of the “stuff” of Christmas and Whos still sing and celebrate, the Grinch realizes that “He hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming. It came. Somehow or other, it came just the same. And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold, in the snow, Stood puzzling and puzzling: ‘How could it be so? It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes or bags.’ And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! ‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from the store. Maybe Christmas perhaps means a little bit more!”
Christmas will be different this year, but it will come all the same because it doesn’t depend on you or me or a candlelit sanctuary to make it happen. It depends on God, and as we know, Emanuel (God) is with us, wherever we are this Christmas. And that is Good News.
Emanuel, God with us, help us to be faithful witnesses to the world of your sacrificial love. As we mourn what we are losing this Christmas, remind us of your faithfulness and promise to be with us always. Help us to feel the joy you brought to the world as we are faithful not by coming to worship, but be staying where we are, knowing you are with us wherever we are. In the name of the one whose birth we proclaim, Amen.