Updated: Jan 18
Dr. RB McFee
What a year! It seems fraught with challenges, including the inconvenience of a census, worsening political instability, growing concerns about financial insecurity, disease constantly threatening families, and the darkness of faithlessness, selfishness, loneliness, foolishness, despair, and contentiousness abounding. If ever the appearance of a Savior, and a supernatural sign of hope was needed it would be during the year.
Think I’m talking about 2020? I was actually describing the year Jesus was born. To be sure both 2020 and the times of Christ seem very similar. But it is in these dark times that God’s light can be seen most brightly, if we look outside ourselves….
“And behold an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people….”
Luke 2: 9 – 10
In the midst of great darkness God’s voice, surrounded by sublime Light, gave us a simple, yet profound greeting - “great joy.” The Almighty could have said a lot of things in announcing His Son’s birth, His incarnation into the midst of humanity, but God chose to greet the shepherds with a sense of “joy.” By my thinking when God uses a specific term, there’s a reason for it.
For somehow, not only at Christmas, but all the long year through, the joy that you give to others is the joy that comes back to you.”
John Greenleaf Whittier
I would suspect God’s use of the term “joy” was to convey the embodiment of love and hope, the kind that comes when we share ourselves with others, just as He did with us two thousand years ago. And that’s a contagion we can all live with. That’s the kind of contagion we all need. This is especially true at Christmas.
Dickens captured the needs of this sacred time most succinctly in his iconic novel A Christmas Carol…. “Christmas is a time when want is keenly felt.”
We notice in Scripture that God didn’t make the dangers of life in Judea go away. Instead He offered a way through them in Christ. God reminded us there can be joy in the midst of chaos. There can be light, hope overcoming the darkness.
Nowhere does the clash between darkness and light become more readily apparent, then at Christmastime. It is for Christians a season of hope, rebirth, optimism, happy endings. It is when the Light of the world – Jesus, overcame the darkness.
To be sure, we have lived in a time of darkness.
And while we are tempted to suggest Christmas 2020 is a time when want is more keenly felt than other times because of the challenges associated with the current pandemic, and certainly “want is keenly felt” in 2020 – we are reminded of the times Mary and Joseph lived in – harsh conditions, rampant disease without adequate medical care, natural dangers including venomous snakes, and wild animals always present, and the threat of revolution never far from reality.
Moreover humans have been trying to avoid disease since time immemorial. From leprosy in the time of Jesus, to the “black death” of the Middle Ages, to COVID-19; mankind has been plagued by contagious illness. As people in a modern era we expected disease to ravage inhabitants of antiquity. But for us to be at risk in an age of wonder drugs, and miracle technologies jostles us to our core.
And while we in the United States have been enormously blessed to have avoided those threats, for many of our fellow citizens of the world these are realities they continue to face every day. Our new normal, that may last a few more months, or even a year, is something others have lived their entire lives with. We all now face a common threat – the pandemic – and the darkness of these times.
Along with this era of danger comes something as insidious and deadly as a contagion – the darkness. It is an encompassing cloud of fear, sadness, selfishness, anger, isolation, loneliness and despair that can spread, and inflict as quickly as any pathogen.
But it is in the darkest of times God’s light shines brightest.
As people of faith we are reminded to place our anxieties at the foot of the Cross. We pray. We trust in our Lord. And we take precautions.
“It is good to be children sometimes and never better than at Christmas.”
Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol
Christmas 2020 can be a time of dark contagiousness, or we can become “children” again, reclaiming the joy and innocence, the hope and anticipation that the Christ-child’s birth inspired, and can continue to inspire us, filling us with joy and hope and love, and light.
We can offer a different form of contagions to counter the darkness. These include generosity, kindness, compassion, humility, forgiveness, and the sense of presence to those near and far. There are lots of needs in our midst – within our faith family where nearly everyone is carrying at least one burden (health, financial, loneliness and isolation, and so much more), to the wider community where the needs of others may be far greater than the capacity of charitable organizations to meet it.
Most importantly, it is during these times of darkness that God’s love shines brightest, if we as His people choose to reflect, to share that Light of Love.
I like to think each of us is a candle lit by God’s Candle. We all know a candle’s light does not diminish because it is shared. Think about the beauty of Christmas Eve services – where we light someone else’s candle until a darkened sanctuary is filled with the light of our faith family members. That candlelight is God’s Love Light, which if we choose to share it, is also our love light, too. We can take it into the world. We can fill the dark spots with it.
We can appear, as the angel did 2000 years ago on a dark hillside in a tiny village miles outside of Jerusalem, and spread “tidings of joy.” We can become the answered prayer for someone through the love and joy we share.
And here are some ways to create contagions we all need – the contagiousness of love and joy….
In the book Christmas Joy by Susan Branch, a wonderful collection of stories and inspiration, not to mention great cookie recipes (am shamelessly offering to taste test the efforts of anyone in my faith family willing to bake some) she shares a really cool idea – giving the gift of love in the form of the “treat of the month club.” You give or send someone a homemade “coupon” which promises a visit, a dessert, a treat or something from you every month. It shows a commitment of connectedness, costs little more than imagination and time, and could bless someone profoundly by the joy of you! I can already think of a few people who I can do this with.
Also found this little poem in Branch’s book worth considering – “The love in your heart wasn’t put there to stay. Love isn’t love till it’s given away.” Even though we may not be able to be in presence of everyone who needs us or we want to hang out with, we can still be present and loving to them.
Phoning shut ins and long distance friends, sharing a smile (even in a mask, a smile is powerfully noticed – the eyes don’t fib), sending food, praying for someone, praying with someone, mailing ‘thinking of you’ notes, the opportunities to share our love are as varied as our imaginations.
And take time for your joy, too! Light candles, decorate your home. Remember this is Jesus’ birthday, not ours…so decorate for Him, if not for you! Pray – we’ll talk more about this in another article. Let God give you peace – that’s what Christmas is all about. Sing Christmas carols, even alone, or create a zoom caroling session. Make snow angels. Be the child full of hope and innocent expectation that Dickens described, and Christ wants for all of us.
Of course we all know what the “tidings of great joy” was, and is – the birth of our Savior, Jesus the Christ. The first Christmas came with the first greeting – “tidings of joy.” And it spread. The shepherds went to find Jesus’ birthplace, and they shared that joy with others.
The most powerful contagions we can have at Christmas, and the kinds we can safely, happily, enthusiastically share – include hope in Christ, because His Light is still with us, lots of joy – ours, His, and the angels’, and love. We are the candles of God sent into the world to make it brighter, warmer, more loved, more at peace.
“But in this season it is well to reassert that the hope of mankind rests in faith. As man thinketh, so he is. Nothing much happens unless you believe in it, and believing there is hope for the world is a way to move toward it.”
Joy to the world…. that is a contagion we all need. And that joy ultimately resides in our relationship with Jesus, and our willingness to share His love with others in this season of hope.