The Worst Christmas Ever
“It’s a Covid Christmas.”
Has a nice ring, don’t you think? Except that most people think that this will be the WORST Christmas ever.
And how can you blame them? No gatherings. No friends. No family. Home alone, huddled like mice against the pandemic, darting out of our holes and hovels to hunt for stale cheese; each “hail fellow, well met”––if met at all––now thought a reservoir of contagion.
“Oh no, we’re doomed” shouted Violet, of Charlie Brown Christmas fame, when she discovered that Charlie Brown was about to direct the Christmas play. “This will be the worst Christmas play ever,” added Patty.
“We must, I am afraid, look again at Christmas,” said UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday, as world-weary as I have ever heard him . . . “Given the early evidence we have on this new variant of the virus ––and the potential risk it poses–– it is with a heavy heart that I must tell you: we cannot continue with Christmas as planned.”
Ironically the first subjects of Christmas felt similarly doomed, long before they took their places on Christmas cards. Mary and Joseph, for example. Nine months earlier, Mary had received a terrifying visit from the angel Gabriel, a heavenly being from the household of God. Unbeknowst to her it was a scene that would inspire countless artists in centuries to come.
But for Mary it was a nightmare. “Greetings, you who are highly favored!” said Gabriel. “The Lord is with you.” But it certainly didn’t seem like it.
The filmmaker Franco Zeferreli creator of the epic 1975 film Jesus of Nazareth, imagines this meeting to have taken place in the very dead of night, during a windstorm of all things, as jackals howled and doors and shutters creaked and banged . . . Mary herself stumbling out of bed like one concussed; little more than a shifting shadow before the blinding light of Gabriel’s being.
“Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God,” said the angel. “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever. His kingdom, in fact, will never end.”
But how would she explain this to the village? “Oh, by the way, I suppose you’re wondering what’s happened here. Well, actually, I’m pregnant by the Holy Spirit.”
“Yeah, right, that’s a good one! You nothing; you nobody! Just wait till you come before the town council. If you know what’s good for you, Mary, you’ll go, and never return . . .”
“So much for my blushing bride,” Joseph probably said to himself. “I sure know how to pick ‘em. What a nightmare! What did I do to deserve this?”
But he too meets an angel, this time in a dream. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
And then, just nigh of giving birth, what happens? Late in the pregnancy Mary and Joseph are summoned to Bethlehem––of all places––to answer a perfectly stupid imperial census. Bethlehem, a 90-mile journey on very bad roads . . . every jostle and jolt an agony. What a nightmare!! At first blush it seemed so romantic:––the homeless wanderers twain, giving birth in a stable. Except it wasn’t . . .
And then there were the Wise Men, philosopher-kings of a bygone age, compelled by a star and the spirit of prophecy to journey west––long west––in search of the Messiah. How romantic! How exalted! How noble! Except it wasn’t.
“A cold coming we had of it,” wrote T. S. Eliot,
in the voice of a Wise Man,
“Just the worst time of the year for a journey––
and such a long journey:
The ways deep, and the weather sharp;
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow . . .
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly.
And the villages dirty and charging high prices . . .
A hard time we had of it.
Were we led all that way, for Birth, or Death??
There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt.
I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different . . .
This Birth was Hard and bitter, like Death––our death.
And then there were the shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
How sweet; how touching; how picturesque! Except it wasn’t. Shepherds, social outcasts at the best of times, and ceremonially unclean; too poor to hire others for this work, that they might work by day and sleep by night––like ordinary folk––; that they might enjoy the fruits of their labour and be warmed by the wool which they themselves had produced.
The Palestinian desert grows cold at night, of course, and they were cold; daytime temperatures averaging 38° C but plunging to 3 or 4 below by night . . .Their hands and feet and bones and joints ached from it, and they drew their breath in pain.
But suddenly, the truth came, in a burst of glory––angelic glory––; in the greatest suddenly known to man. And they––the shepherds––the nothings, the nobodies; they were the first to hear of it. “Fear not! For behold, I bring you good news of great joy.” In other words, the whole of history has been reset!
This isn’t the worst Christmas ever––it’s the best Christmas ever! “For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour––which is Christ the Lord.”
A Saviour! Someone to save you! To set you free! To touch you, and hold you, and redeem you! To heal you, and begin to set things right, throughout the world. For this time, God himself has come. Not just another prophet, nor another wonder worker. But God, very God.
“And this shall be a sign unto you.” Are you ready??
“Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
And suddenly, indeed suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host
––more angels than could be counted, in other words––praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
Wow. History itself had been reset . . .
Christmas 2020, the Covid Christmas. The worst Christmas ever??? A Christmas to be canceled?
No, it’s one of the best Christmases ever, irony of ironies.
A Christmas to stop, and reflect on what really counts. A Christmas for things––ordinary things, customary things––to suffer to be reset, as the whole of history was reset, untold Christmases ago . . . A Christmas on which to dare to pray to the Lord of Glory, and ask, “Lord, where do we go from here? What can we do, differently? How can we live, differently?”
For this is a prayer––a Christmas prayer––that God will answer.