I remember Advent and Christmas seasons when the church was a whirlwind of activity: pageants, potlucks, church services filled with young families, and carol singing with the choir in their best projecting voices. Amazing!
Yes, I remember Advent and Christmas in 2019. It feels a bit silly to put it that way, but it reminds me how different things are going to be this year with the changes that COVID-19 has brought to the world — physical distancing, expanding and contracting bubbles, a lack of communal singing and group meal-sharing, worshipping in much smaller groups if we’re together, or worshipping in virtual spaces. I’m grieving many of these changes. It’s been almost a year of things being “off.” I celebrate everything that communities of faith have been doing to live out their ministries in the face of things being different, but I’m sad, too.
Grieving what was isn’t just okay; it’s important. Because while some of those things will come back, many of them won’t ever be quite the same. We’ll need to remember that each of us will have different experiences of Christmas and will be grieving slightly different things, and we’ll need to be gentle with ourselves and with each other.
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Various Hebrew scriptures describe a practice of farmers leaving a field or orchard to go fallow every seventh year of its cultivation. The land was left to rest and renew, without being worked. According to the book of Exodus, anything that grew on it in this time was for people who were in poverty, and anything left by them was for the animals. The farmers would let the land be, and the world would see what God grew on it.
I wonder if we might take this as a year to let our Advent and Christmas lie fallow. Could we find in this pandemic a time to stop and take stock of how we celebrate the birth of Jesus? A time to challenge ourselves to look at Christmas through Jesus’ lens of love? Jesus pointed out the two most important directions given to God’s people: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” What would happen if this Christmas we took the time to look at our traditions and practices with that in mind?
Perhaps things wouldn’t change at all. Perhaps they’d look quite different! After all, many of our communities of faith, many of our lives and many parts of our world look quite different than they did just a year ago. Perhaps knowing that this Christmas, like our past Easter, is going to be different from other years can give us the permission to dive deeply and find out what is central to our celebrations.
There are individual practices one could look at. Why do we give gifts, and why do we give the gifts we give? Somewhere along the way, many of us have caught the consumerist messages that “bigger is better” and “more means I love you.” Why do we try to pack so much into December? What are we trying to find in our community times? What would happen if we spread those Christmas celebrations throughout the year? Asking ourselves these questions doesn’t mean we need to stop our practices. It’s simply an invitation to understand why we’re doing them.
There are some collective practices that need to be considered, too. Even communities of faith that have decided to worship in person will find that many rituals and traditions will have to be different. Unless we’ve found out something wildly new about the virus that causes COVID-19, congregations won’t be singing Christmas carols in the sanctuary this Christmas Eve. It becomes important, then, to explore what carol singing means to us. Why do we do it? How can we experience the communal joy that comes from raising our voices together if we can’t sing?
Events of this past year have also challenged us to consider our cultural practices. For people living with poverty, people living with no homes or precarious housing, and people experiencing job loss, the effects of COVID-19 meant that not only were they pushed to their individual limits, but volunteer and financial resources for many of the ministries and social services that could help weren’t available.
Christmas has long been a time when people become more charitable, but what might happen if we took this Christmas to move past charity? Could this fallow Christmas become a time of Jubilee? In the book of Exodus, this was a part of a greater cycle, a time when debt was forgiven, when people were freed from slavery, when land was returned to the people to whom it had first been given, when people had enough so they could rest safely. Jubilee for us might mean a resetting of systems of care, security and economy so that they become based on celebrating the intrinsic worth of every beloved child of God, rather than on charity.
While it has been going on for hundreds of years, the injustice and inequity of racism has been highlighted this year by the killings of Black people and of Indigenous people in the United States, in Canada, and around the world, and the protests that have taken place in response. What might Christmas — the celebration of God becoming present to the world in a new way, through the birth of a child to a Mediterranean Jewish peasant family in a land under occupation by the Roman Empire — say to Jesus’ disciples here and now about racism in all of its forms?
We could start by taking a look at the images of Christmas and noticing how many of them portray Mary, Joseph and Jesus as white, as well as the shepherds who were first to meet him. So much of the imagery in the North American church has come through the imaginations of European artists. If we picture Mary robed in blue with porcelain white skin, looking down at white infant Jesus in the manger, not only do we take away from the reality of Jesus’ story, but we begin the process of whitewashing his teachings and co-opting him into a cultural story that is the opposite of how he called his disciples to live.
Could this fallow Christmas become a time of Jubilee?
In this year, when so many of our cherished traditions will need to be set aside for the health and well-being of our families and communities, we need to remember that our hope is found in the birth of a tiny baby, who would grow up to love all of Creation into wholeness; who would challenge the powers and principalities, not just of his day but of every age, into justice and equity; who would invite the world into abundant life, and call all of his disciples to be living examples of God’s love.
And so, even without the pageants and the face-to-face gatherings, even without trees or gifts, even in a time of fallow forced on us by a pandemic, our hope is in the radical love of God, present in the Christ.
The first Christmas — from the messenger of God asking a young peasant woman if she would give birth to the One Who Saves; to the birth in a stable; to the first visitors being some of the poorest of the land; to the family seeking refuge in a foreign country to escape government-ordered killings; to Jesus coming into his ministry — is a song of hope.
This Christmas, could we let that song lead us into new ways of understanding who we are called to be?
This story first appeared in Broadview’s December 2020 issue with the title “A fallow Christmas.”
Rt. Rev. Richard Bott is the 43rd moderator of The United Church of Canada.
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