And [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.[Luke 2:7 NRSV]
I have a stack of books that I pull out each Advent to supplement my devotional reading for the season. They cover a wide range of perspectives and time periods, from the classic to the contemporary. Some are commentaries on the Scriptures. Others are collections of poems and reflections.
Depending on my mood at the dawning of each day, I will read from one or several. I intentionally try to find some revelation, some nugget of wisdom that I hadn’t detected before. I am never disappointed. When you haven’t read something for a while it speaks to you differently. Our circumstances are different each time we return to a text, no matter how familiar we may be with it.
The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus (544 B.C.), once said “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
This doesn’t apply to just me. None of us is the same. This year especially, circumstances are different for all of us.
Since the onset of COVID-19 in March of this year, I’ve been reading my daily devotions with an intensity I hadn’t ever sensed before. Each day as I dwell in the Word, I discover a phrase, a sentence, a word that resonates with the circumstances we’re currently enduring.
Especially this Advent.
What were once merely words on paper now capture my attention. My eyes are riveted to the page. Thousands of years later, the prophets’ dire forewarnings have become strikingly real in our time. We are wandering through a wilderness with no known destination, living a form of spiritual, if not physical exile. Gripped in the wave of a global pandemic, nearly everything we do involves a greater risk than ever in our lifetime. We proceed with an overwhelming abundance of caution. We wear masks, wash our hands, avoid crowds. Those who can, work from home.
And we read scripture differently.
As we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior, the conditions encompassing the Nativity stories also take on a new meaning. We are forced to see our human encounter with the Divine with a fresh set of eyes. For me, some days that is an almost breathtaking occurrence.
I am now retired. But those who are still in active ministry are perhaps even more challenged to reinterpret the familiar stories of Jesus’ birth into a narrative that is more than mere harmonization of well-worn tales overlaid with tradition. This year, the preacher can’t merely repeat the same uninspiring version of the birth of a little baby in a manger in a stable in Bethlehem. They are compelled to take into account the challenges that the baby, his mother, father, and their community faced, and draw parallels to the present alarming conditions that are facing us today.
This year’s engagement with the Christ child is different because WE are different. The traditional Christmas Eve worship service, usually packed with both the regular and occasional (once-a-year) churchgoers, has been relegated to a technological spectacle, pre-recorded in most cases. It will be merely viewed this year through live-streaming or some video platform. We become passive observers instead of active participants. Our families make up the choir as we sing our Christmas Carols at home.
As a consequence of all those obstacles, this year, more than ever, we seek God’s grace. Though we are not physically present with each other, we are more aware that in our dependence on each other, we see the power of God at work within us.
This COVID-19 Christmas invites us to reimagine the Nativity, encourages us to use our senses, moves us to identify with the shepherds and the others who were there in Bethlehem, inspires us to see in our mind’s eye the face of that baby, lying helpless in a manger.
By God’s grace, we become even more aware that we have a responsibility to love and care for our neighbor.
As we hear once again the story of Christ’s coming to earth to save us, may it stir in our hearts the desire to live, to fulfill God’s will, accomplish God’s purpose, and transform this sorrowing world into a realm of hope.