My favorite time during the holiday season comes in the few days after Christmas. The gifts are unwrapped and put away, there are leftover cookies everywhere you turn, and people are still in the holiday mood but have already finished (or not finished) the long list of traditions and gatherings that can be both a blessing and a bane. Things get quiet. People sleep in. A calm descends and everyone in our house shuffles around in new slippers, clutching cups of coffee and chatting in the hallways, or visiting in each other’s rooms. This has always been part of my ultimate idea of Heaven – hanging out with loved ones, grateful for each other, and having enough time to just be with each other, without any planned activities or expectations. The Christmas decorations are still up so everything looks beautiful but the chaos is somewhere in the far off distance.
This year will be different. There will still be cookies and coffee. People will still get Christmas gifts and no doubt my very young neighbors will have many new toys to show me. But this year is different. We are living in a time of darkness and uncertainty. With the new Covid restrictions has come a space between us all. Families cannot gather in large extended groups like they have for many decades. Groups of friends who used to get together for some holiday shopping and lunch out are now ordering gifts online and sending an email to their friends. No one will be attending a church service and belting out Joy to the World with their congregation. This Christmas is unlike any other for many reasons but the distance between us all seems to me to be the biggest difference. There have been dark Christmases before but we were together in the darkness. We are not together any more.
All of this is, of course, extremely odd when you live in an intentional Christian community, surrounded by two hundred other people all day, every day. No one who moved into Jesus People did so in an effort to be alone or spend more time in silence. And yet, here we are, forced by necessity and science to stay away from each other for the safety of one another.
Where does this leave us all at Christmas? Some people would insert a stirring speech about gratitude or remembering the people who have it worse than us or even a bit about real Christians being joyful in all circumstances. (Because guilting people into a better mood is helpful and effective in the long term…) But I have something to say which does not fall under any of those headings.
It is this: This year there is a lot of room, a lot of space – between us and other people, between our traditions and what is actually possible, between what we expected and what we are living through in 2020. Some of that space is quite painful, like missing family or being homesick. Some of it is simply boredom and unfilled time. We tend to see empty space as darkness, an absence of light. But it might be helpful to view the space as full of the presence of something else, something in busier times we only catch sight of out of the corner of our eye, something we are aware of but not often focused on – the presence of God. Acts 17:28 reminds us that “In Him we live and move and have our being.” This describes an immediacy, a closeness to God that no circumstances can change. And of course, that is what the first Christmas brought about – God with us. We can view the empty spaces not as howling darkness but as presence. Please hear me, I am not saying that Covid is some sort of lesson God is giving us on the true meaning of Christmas or a punishment for cluttering up Advent with too many activities.
What I am saying is that because of Christmas we have Emmanuel, God with us, a place to stand when things are unknown and depressing and dangerous. 2020 has been all that and more for everyone on this earth, but because of Emmanuel, this presence with us, the darkness will not have the last word on any of it. As Anne Lamott always reminds us, “Grace bats last.” This may be a holiday season of feeling like strangers in a strange land, a land we did not choose and which we would escape if escape were possible. But it is also a season of celebrating that we are not alone here in this place, weird and scary as it can be.
So this Christmas, I am planning to enjoy cookies and coffee, slippers and my Christmas tree. I will carefully not be gathering with others, constantly wearing my mask, and trying hard to pay attention to the moments of grace and the fullness of God’s presence that surrounds me at all times, even in 2020.
Genesis Winter was raised in JPUSA and still lives there with her husband, Andrew. They are beginning the empty nest transition. She currently manages events at the Wilson Abbey, JPUSA’s venue space, runs the Chicago’s Best Baker Contest, and works as a spiritual director. Her past jobs include helping run Cornerstone Festival, teaching, and working in the community’s financial office. She is glad to live in Chicago with its extremely diverse population and fantastic food, and is always trying to find ways to bring people together through events.