This year we celebrate a Christmas like never before. We are surrounded with strange advice as we are asked to limit numbers in arranging family gatherings, to keep things virtual, to change previous ways of expressing love and celebrations, and to show love in staying distant. One interesting piece of advice that I read lately says, “try to save next year Christmas and make sure that you take safety measures so all will be around the table.” We celebrate with cautious preparation, and with fear in the air—even fear of our neighbors, the future, or the coming vaccine and its consequences. How do we celebrate with all these fears? Will fear steal our joy this Christmas?
If we look closely at the Christmas story we realize that many were afraid as well. We remember Zechariah, who was worried as the angel Gabriel appeared to him and said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer is heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John” (Luke 1:13). Or Mary who was troubled as the angel Gabriel told her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus” (Luke 1:30). Or Joseph her husband as the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20). Or the “shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night, and an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. And the angel said to them, ‘Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people’” (Luke 2:8-10).
The Christmas story brings fear and joy together. It is the story of unusual doubts and questions together with experiencing certainty of an everlasting love. It is the struggle between waiting for a saviour and finding him in unexpected places and in odd circumstances. It is the story where we discover strength in the midst of our weakness, in a manger away from castles. It is the story where fear does not have the last word, but joy with the new beginning: a saviour is born. It is the story where our eyes are turned away from our fears to assurance that we are not alone, as we hear the words addressed to Mary by the Angel:
“Rejoice! The Lord has granted you a great favour. God is with you!” (Luke 1:30)
Jesus is assurance that the Lord is with us—Emmanuel is with us—which changes our fears to confidence and opens our eyes to the reality that our strength comes from above; no one can steal our joy. The corona pandemic tested the world and where the strength of the world lies.
As we struggle today with injustice around the world and our ability in changing the world, we might experience helplessness and fear. But we recognize that God took a decision to be with us, “the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” As Eugene Peterson puts it: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood.” Then we wonder, why are we afraid? God tented with the Israelites in the wilderness, and in Christ God pitches his tent with us. God is with us. This is our hope, our joy, our reality, and the centrality of our struggle and strength.
What is happening in the world could raise our fears whether it is the reality of the poor, or health issues, or racial and gender injustice, or authoritarian dominance, or marginalization, or strategized economic injustice, or destructive wars. Yes, all this worries us, but only as we discover our neighbour who pitched his tent among us, then we gain strength to continue the journey of justice. The new neighbour is safe and even could bring us joy, peace, and change the world. We even hear his resonating words, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid” (Matthew 8:26)?
As a Communion we live in hope beyond COVID-19 and trust that the Lord will continue to send us as a community ready to pitch our tent wherever it hurts, wherever the dignity of God’s people is stepped on, and where people are far from fullness of life.
Yes, this Christmas could be like never before, only when we recognize anew that God is with us.
Have a joyful Christmas.
Rev. Najla Kassab
Illustration by Joel Schoon-Tanis.