A year ago I wondered whether Christmas as it was in the past would ever return. Two years of governments playing tag with an elusive virus had upturned all reasonable expectations for the holiday season. We celebrated Christmas with a closed door, and started to think it was normal.
In 2022 the virus didn’t go away as we’d hoped it would, but it fell out of the spotlight. The year brought other world upheavals that simply dwarfed the stories of new variants and case numbers. But we probably would have moved on a bit anyway. Sick of trying so hard not to get sick, most of us got sick and discovered that even a vaccine-chastened Covid could be a nasty foe. But, we figured, at least we’re living our lives.
Things we thought we’d lost forever bounded back to life. The custom of handshaking returned with a force that blew away two years of awkward bowing and waving as if they were mere dust. The Covid-19 era had looked like it would be a reset, a pause to think and evaluate, and only to let back what was truly good and necessary. Instead, we’ve mostly just gone back to the way things were.
And now it’s Christmas again. For many of us, the calendar has filled in along the lines of the pre-2020 ways. It’s busy, but we like it. This year, we can experience in its fullness the real meaning of Christmas: overeating and shopping.
That characterization may not be entirely fair, but we do easily forget an awful lot.
We forget what Christmas is at its heart: the feast of the incarnation, a celebration that God was willing to take our sorry condition into unity with his very being. He became one of us out of love for us, and as our creator he grasped us by the hand like a parent keeping a child safe and secure in the face of danger.
We also forget that the quiet, lonely feelings we experienced during the past two years are, for many people, a routine part of Christmas, not to mention an everyday reality. For some it’s because they aren’t surrounded by people, so they don’t have the reassurances of love that we all need to live. For some it’s because even in a crowd of people who love them they are lost in disappointment or regret or grief or depression or fear about the future. Last year we started to understand this. But from then to now, with the return of many of our old habits, it’s slipped our minds pretty well completely.
So we forget that others are suffering. We forget that Jesus entered into this world to relieve our suffering. The Gospel writers picture Jesus coming into a world of hurt and deep longing. Here, in the middle of harrowing human history, the One who made humanity himself became one of us. “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering” (Isaiah 53:4). We assume this to be true of his death, but in his life too this is what Jesus did. In the incarnation, we see God himself coming to meet us in all our weakness. As Thomas Torrance writes, “Jesus Christ is the open heart of God, the very love and life of God poured out to redeem humankind, the mighty hand and power of God stretched out to heal and save sinners.”
If our hearts, crowded with so many holiday desires, have closed up a little to the pain that others are bearing this season, perhaps a refocus on Jesus—God’s open heart toward all of our troubles, whether due to our own wrongs, the wrongs of others, or simply the wrongness of a world in need of redemption—will take us back, if not to Christmas 2021, then at least to the sense we started to have back then of the needs we all share, and the gift that the incarnation is.