Column by Andre McCarville
Christmas is coming! In years past, that statement held great joy for many people who saw it as the one bright spot in the bleak darkness of winter that helped them through. For some, they looked forward to time spent with loved ones they had not seen recently. Maybe for others they were excited about gifts that they were hoping for. Yet some saw it as a massive hassle, or even worse, a commercial enterprise that forced them to spend too much time shopping, and robbed them of the joy of relaxing and spending time with those they love. For still others, Christmas, and the entire holiday season, was a painful reminder of a loved one they lost, who would never celebrate the holidays with them again.
There have been many other ways Christmas has been experienced. One thing seems certain for many people, this year Christmas will be different. I recently asked some of the college students I work with how they were going to celebrate Christmas this year, and their responses were the saddest I could have imagined. Realities of not getting to see their relatives or friends that they had been looking forward too, as well as lost recreational pastimes like going to the movies or the big Christmas parties were lamented. The question of being able to attend Mass has also been raised. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues on, and cases seem to continue to rise, what will Christmas be like?
It may be helpful to think back to what Jesus, Mary and Joseph experienced on that first Christmas, over 2,000 years ago. They were far from their home and their family. They didn’t even have a decent place to stay, and were forced to be out in a stable: the smell of the animals, the bite of the cool night air, the discomfort of the ground they slept on…I would suspect that it wasn’t the way Joseph or Mary had envisioned the birth of their child.
Yet throughout all of this, God worked His gifts into their situation. They didn’t have the family and friends nearby that they may have hoped for, but the shepherds came as a new source of support and consolation. They didn’t have the comforts of home or security, but the Magi brought them gifts that they could not have expected.
We are going through an unprecedented time, but it may be helpful to keep in mind a few things. First, we should ask, “How might God be working through this situation?” Too often, in asking this question, we are quick to wonder what God is doing in the world around us, particularly in other people. To me, the more pressing question is, “What is God trying to do in my life, right now, through all of this?” In faith, we understand that “all things work for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28). God can work new gifts and experiences into our situation that we had not considered, nor possibly even imagined, if we are open to seeing them.
Second, we need to remember that the meaning of Christmas has not changed. Perhaps this is a good time to reconnect with the original meaning. We are celebrating the birth of God as a person among us. As Caesar Augustus was sitting in his palace that night, and Quirinius the governor was in his, the Lord of lords, the King of Creation, was born in a stable. We have a God who can identify with us in our distress. We have a God who experiences pain and isolation, rejection and humiliation, all out of love for us. The Highest of the high entered into the lowest of the low to be close to us.
So if the meaning of Christmas hasn’t changed, and we need to be open to God doing something new, what can we do celebrate in a meaningful way this year? I would suggest planning to make Christmas as special as ever, and maybe in some new ways:
Have an Advent wreath in your home, and every Sunday have a prayer vigil where you light one of the candles.
Decorate your house more festively than ever. Make it a source of joy for all those who will go by it.
Pray as you decorate your tree this year. Offer a prayer for every decoration you put up.
Do you know anyone who is a shut-in? Get your family together and sing Christmas carols outside their home.
Send more Christmas cards than usual this year, perhaps to friends you have lost touch with, or maybe people in your neighborhood you don’t know very well, or to those you know who are isolated from friends and family.
Alone or as a family, read the nativity story as found in either the Gospel of Matthew or the Gospel of Luke.
For Mass this year, if due to fears about the pandemic you will not be attending Mass in person, you might want to have your family get dressed for Mass, even if you will not go in to a church. I would even suggest that you take your family to celebrate in the parking lot of a church, and watch the Mass on your phone, knowing the mystery of the Eucharist is taking place in front of you.
Whatever you do, don’t go overboard on the commercial aspects of Christmas. Many of us will try to make it better for children or other loved ones by buying them more stuff. Don’t give in to this temptation. Instead of helping our children to encounter the beauty of Christmas, this will actually turn them more in on themselves. While the pleasure they gain from the presents will be real, it will also be very transitory. Instead, encourage them to be giving to those who are truly in need. You could find out the needs of friends and neighbors and send gifts to them. Or you could give to a worthy charity that helps those in greatest need this year, such as Catholic Charities, St. Vincent de Paul, Catholic Relief Services, or Food for the Poor.
Finally, Jesus had a vision for us and what we would be for the world:
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” – Matthew 5:14-15
We cannot forget who we are. Christmas is the celebration of the True Light coming into the world. That Light lives on in us. We are people of hope, called to go out and proclaim that hope to the nations. Do not give in to the temptation to despair that is found in the darkness this Christmas. Instead, light your lamp, and let it shine for all the house. Or perhaps you could make a roaring fire in your hearth.
Andre McCarville is the Director of Missions and Family Life for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. He is also the diocese’s Catholic Campus Minister at Penn State Altoona.