Glenda Simpkins Hoffman
Every Christmas, I think of my parents, especially my mother. I put up the stockings she knit for each member of our family. I decorate my tree with all the ornaments she has made for each of us. I’m reminded of the magical Advent and Christmas seasons of my youth filled with so many special treats, fun experiences, shared meals, and celebrations we as a family and our extended family enjoyed. In the midst of everything, she made sure we understood that Jesus was the reason for the season.
But my life changed when I went to Russia for a year. Not only was I far from home, I was actually very ill that Christmas. That was the year that began for me a deeper appreciation of the messiness of Christmas.
We tend to romanticize the story of the nativity. I began to wake up to the realities of the struggle that I had glossed over before. Elizabeth, the cousin of Mary, was barren and grieved because she could not have a child. Zachariah doubted and was forced into silence to contemplate God’s action. Mary experienced an unexpected pregnancy, and the stress of being misunderstood and the possibility of being rejected by her betrothed. Joseph was understandably disappointed by this new, but upon hearing from an angel, he willingly surrenders to God’s will to be the early father of Jesus—no small calling.
This weekend I have been especially mindful of Mary and Joseph who would have already started the 90–mile trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be a part of the census mandated by an oppressive foreign regime. Keep in mind Mary was nine months pregnant and due to deliver her first baby.
Nine months. Nine months we have been dealing with COVID-19. Nine months has changed everything about how we live, work, learn, even worship. And now as Christmas approaches, it will change the way we celebrate Christmas with family and as a congregation. To experience disappointment and grief is understandable, but our feelings can lead us to experience the Nativity story in a new way with a deeper appreciation for what was really going on.
Imagine Mary and Joseph learning there was no room for them and having to deliver the baby in the area where the animals lived, and placing their newborn in a feeding trough. They then needed to flee to Egypt to escape an evil leader who wanted to kill Jesus. They were driven from their home and became refugees.
It’s good and helpful to name where we are in our story. But it’s also important to remember the first Christmas was not magical; it was messy and in some ways seemingly out of control. But Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us came into the messiness of the world and the messiness of our messy lives.
Each of us is a real flesh-and-blood human being in a set of real-life circumstances. So we have to name the place we find ourselves and experience the With-Us-God coming to us right here and now. This Christmas, my husband continues treatment and rehabilitation after brain surgery. My mother has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. My children continue to struggle with online learning like so many others.
We as a church we will not worship together in our church building as so many of us love to do. This will be Pete’s last Christmas as he will retire at the end of February. It’s a bittersweet moment for us who have walked through so Christmases with him preaching and leading us in worship for many years.
It is understandable if we feel grief in not being able to be with family, celebrate Christmas as we would like, or have some apprehension about what is ahead. But this year is also an opportunity for us to grow in our awareness and appreciation of the true meaning and mystery of what Christmas is all about.
While the opening of the Gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus’ birth, and Matthew helps us understand that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, it is John who helps us understand the meaning and the mystery of Jesus’ incarnation.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it….
“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth… From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
Christmas is about Jesus, the Son of God becoming human, crashing into the darkness of our world to bring us light and life. Jesus’ humility in becoming human made it possible for us to experience the abundant life of hope, peace, joy, and love, no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in this year.
The second and third verses of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is one of the best commentaries on the meaning and mystery of Christmas:
Christ by highest heav’n adored, Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold him comes, offspring of the Virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate deity.
Pleased with man as man to dwell, Jesus is our Emmanuel.
Hark the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn king.”
Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings, ris’n with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth. Born to give them second birth.
Hark the herald angels sing, “Glory to the new born king.”
Christmas is about Jesus’ birth and all he has given us in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Whoever we are, whatever we are going through, Jesus is God-with-us. In him we have salvation, a new and eternal life and home. Christmas is a time to celebrate the new life Jesus brings, but it’s especially a time to worship. O come, let us adore him.