How shall we celebrate Christmas in such a time as this? The year 2020 is the Christmas of the COVID-19 pandemic; the Christmas awaiting a protective vaccine; the Christmas of rampant unemployment worldwide, of unprecedented hurricanes and wildfires, of evidence of and opposition to racism; a year of uncertainty about the future of our United Methodist Church.
How this year do we draw strength from Christmas for the work of God’s mission in the world? Christmas offers lessons for such a time as this, and I recommend four for consideration in 2020.
Christmas challenges us to affirm and share vulnerability. In the birth of Jesus, we are reminded of how God assumed the vulnerability of a baby in announcing the gospel of love. We have all felt vulnerable this year when confronted with an invisible virus; face masks are becoming the recognition of our physical vulnerability and our need to care for one another. As Brené Brown says, we can only be truly connected with others when we show and share our vulnerability. This year has shown us even more our codependence on one another. Where would we be without the health-care workers who risk their lives, the countless persons who provide what we term “essential services?” In the shared vulnerability and pain, we grow. Brown further reminds us that, “we muster the courage to open up to others and expose parts of ourselves that show our imperfections. Therefore, we are willing to share our inner thoughts, dreams, struggles, or desires with genuineness and the intentions of connecting with others in a meaningful way.”
Christmas reminds us of the need for resilience. The shepherds near Bethlehem changed their work routine to visit the manger and the magi altered their route to protect the child Jesus. So we at Global Ministries and many others have been flexible in our work, learning new ways to support missionaries, respond to natural disasters and health needs, and strengthen congregations. We have found the threads of resilience that run through each. After a recent Zoom meeting, a staff member said, “I have learned to bend with grace.” I am very grateful to the staff of Global Ministries and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) who have shown resilience and embraced operational changes with creativity and often enthusiasm.
Christmas instills hope. The human resilience springs from hope. “Fear not for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy to all people…” the angels assured the shepherds. Hope never dies…or as Bishop Hee-Soo Jung said at our recent Board of Directors meeting, hope dies last. The helplessness that many of us have experienced in these times has led us to rely so much more on God. There is similarity in what we have all gone through in this time and yet difference in how we each respond; still, we cling to hope. We all hope that it will get better. From my own experience, the light that shines in the darkness is through each of us working together to makes things better. This brings hope. As humans, we are made to love and when we hate, we harm ourselves first. Over the years, I have had the benefit of working with people who may not have agreed with me on many things, but our focus was on what could bring us together and there is plenty of that. This is grounds for hope among all people.
Christmas lifts up patient waiting. “Come thou long expected Jesus,” the hymn prays. James 5:7-8 says, “Therefore brother and sisters, you must be patient as you wait for the coming of the Lord. Consider the farmer who waits patiently for the coming of the rain in the fall and spring looking forward to the precious fruit of the earth. You must also wait patiently, strengthening your resolve, because the coming of the Lord is near.” In such a time as this, waiting patiently is a spiritual gift: Waiting for a vaccine, for lockdowns to end, for churches and offices to reopen – for things to change. And we have a firm foundation for the wait. God came to be among us at Christmas and has never left us. As the Psalmist says, our hope lies in “God (who) is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth should change….” (Psalm 46: 1-2) God will be with us no matter how the virus spreads, how the vaccine responds, how the General Conference votes, what the UMC becomes. God’s love remains steadfast no matter what the circumstances and we have to remain steadfast and be open to the wondrous ways we can engage in God’s mission for such a time as this.
“The Book of Joy,” by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, quotes Brother David Steindl-Rast as saying, “It is not happiness that makes us grateful; it is gratefulness that makes us happy.” May gratefulness be our anthem this Christmas and may we all be filled with the peace of God reborn in us for such a time as this.
Roland Fernandes is the general secretary of Global Ministries and UMCOR.