In my years studying to be a priest and working to build up faith communities, I never thought I’d advocate for people to physically stay away from the church, let alone on Christmas. Though the first doses of the COVID vaccines are being administered, the most loving course of action this year is for people to not physically gather for the holidays. Priests and clergy across traditions, around the world are asking everyone to reconsider what it means to be home for the holidays, and what faith and community should look like during a pandemic. Rather than fighting municipal restrictions, the faithful should find comfort in the fact that Christmas is more about change than it is about tradition.
A year ago, “home for the holidays” meant the exhausted elation of arriving back to familiar places after hours of travel. It meant submerging into predictable family craziness while leaving political, workplace, and day-to-day dramas of our lives behind—at least for the holidays. It meant so much comfort food that you either had the best sleep of the year or renewed your gym membership as soon as possible—or both. And for some it meant visiting the church your parents took you to as a kid for midnight mass or Christmas Day service. This year, to be (stuck) home for the holidays means a Zoom family dinner and gazing on Baby Jesus in the manger through a computer. It means being part of a Christian tradition most modern first-world Christians aren’t used to dealing with: Suffering with joy for our faith.
If you’ve been going to church this year it’s likely been online. Maybe you attended outdoor services in the summer, but let’s get real, ain’t nobody got time for that when it’s five below freezing. And whether you’ve been watching services every Sunday or will join virtually for the first time on Christmas, hopefully you still feel connected to your church community. An important part of community is something we’ve known all too well this year—shared suffering. This year dealt our communities a double whammy by dividing us according to politics, race, gender, sexual orientation, and class, and then isolating us from the aspects of community that can heal those rifts. Everyone has shared the experience of being a part of a group forced to cope with changes we didn’t ask for nor frankly deserve, and shared experiences give birth to empathy.
We’ve all heard that ancient carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” offering its tidings of comfort and joy. From neighborhood carolers to Simon & Garfunkel to Pentatonix, its lyrics have always reminded me of the Christmas season’s duality. While its tone and melody are uplifting, hopeful and joyful, the lyrics offer a reminder of the (sometimes overlooked) meaning of Christmas. Between the choruses of “comfort and joy” we sometimes overlook or mumble through those verses about Mary and Joseph sheltering in a manger, the shepherd pressing through a storm, and Jesus saving us from Satan. Hauntingly, the song is both about the drudgery and the joy of Christmas—something we are living quite pointedly these days.
Like that song whose lyrics alternate from comfort and joy to suffering and expectation, Christmas at its core is about transition. We zip past and don’t notice how beautiful it is that immediately following the withering of summer and fall, our lifeless world is transformed with glistening beauty by the Christmas season. We forget that right after the holidays full of food and festivities we transition to a new year and new resolutions. The true holy tradition of this holiday season isn’t found in what stays the same, it’s found in what has been transformed. For some of us, this holiday season commemorates God’s incarnate participation in the world. But for all of us, it is a moment that resets our body. With that understanding, I implore you this Christmas holiday to embrace change. Create a special moment for yourself where you honor the power of transition and transformation that this holiday season embodies.
Whether you decide to log on and share the simultaneously joyful yet suffering experience with many others—which has a beauty all to itself—or you decide to go solo, make a point of creating some kind of intentional hinge-point this season. Not a resolution or action plan: I invite you to partake in one of the most important and profound miracles that Christmas has always offered us: the tradition of change.