Christmas is going to be different this year. The celebrations will be muted, COVID’s shadow falling over our nativities and family dinners, and much as we may want to rage against this, it’s a situation we’re stuck with. And that’s frustrating and heartbreaking in so many ways. ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ has become such a cliche, but the stiff upper lip thing only goes so far, doesn’t it? This isn’t going to be the Christmas any of us imagined twelve months ago.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, four weeks of preparation and anticipation not just for Christmas but also the coming of the Kingdom of God. And in a year in which everything has been turned upside down, Advent is full of new possibilities.
But first things first, maybe it’s a time to grieve: to grieve those we’ve lost, the loved ones who won’t be with us around the table this year. We grieve the other things that are causing us suffering – job security, finances, physical and mental health, fraying relationships, loneliness. The Christmas lights seem to be going up early this year, but they shouldn’t mask the heartbreak. 2020 is going to be a rough Advent and it’s worth remembering that Blue Christmas is on December 21st. We have to make space to mourn the losses of the year.
Advent is also a time of looking forward, looking toward the promise of Christmas, looking toward God’s Kingdom breaking through. Sometimes it’s easy to take this for granted; Christmas is a time of tradition and ritual, we know what’s coming and look forward to it. That rug has been pulled from under us, but maybe there’s a strange kind of hope in that, opportunity in the uncertainty to find Christmas anew and reshape how we celebrate the coming of Christ.
I mean, when we look at it, Christmas is a time to remember that God has always been at work in a world of young families, stressed hospitality workers, blue collar labourers and farmhands, academics, refugees, grieving families, power-hungry authoritarians and protest-singing teenagers. Sometimes that gets lost behind the tinsel and the shopping. Maybe 2020 is an invitation to re-enter the more complicated Christmas faced by Mary and Joseph 2,000 years ago.
So how do we bring communities together when Coronavirus puts us all at risk? How do we do our Christmas shopping in a way that supports struggling independent businesses? How do we run online carol services while also being mindful of digital exclusion? How do we reach out to those who are constantly told there is no room at the inn? Advent is a space to ask all those questions.
The answers to these questions need to be inspired by the Spirit, who is already answering them; God is With Us within Coronatide, not in spite of it. And so throughout this weird, upside-down Advent, in this time of uncertainty and unexpected change, we need to hold on to Jesus, to find him in the chaos and confusion and follow him through. And I’ll be honest, here and now; I don’t know where to start with this, it feels like there are too many questions and not enough answers.
But Advent is a time to rediscover the guiding star, to put one foot in front of the other and set out for Bethlehem. The journey is before us and though the route is unclear, the destination is the same. Start walking.