Originally Published in the Castlegar News on January 1, 2023
Thinking about it, the first Christmas was a bit of a bust, wasn’t it?
No turkey, no stuffing, no cranberry tangerine cinnamon sour chilling in the fridge. The table, if you could call it that, was nothing more than a feeding trough. And while that’s its own kind of trouble, it’s usually still possible to pull a few snacks together when unexpected guests arrive. The thing is, though, there wasn’t any food. No kutia. No cabbage rolls. No varenyky.
At the centre of the room, commanding everyone’s gaze, was a baby. The parents were fixated. Transfixed. There they sat in awe, cradling the child, holding him close, enthralled. It was as though some sort of miracle had just taken place. And yet at first, there was nobody there to witness it. Nobody but the cows and the sheep. Eventually — or so I’m told — a kid with a drum showed up, testing the otherworldly patience of a first-time mother who’d just put her kid to sleep.
The miracle of birth, the miracle of life. Yet where was the family? Where was Mary’s mom? Where were the in-laws? Re-reading this story throughout the Christmas season, I’ve been struck with this overwhelming sense that Mary and Joseph found themselves scared, isolated, and alone. They had returned to Joseph’s small home town, and yet they had no place to stay. Not even Joseph’s strange aunt stepped in at the last minute to offer them the spare room. They’ve gone to the trouble of returning home, and there’s nobody who will take them in.
In some ways, the first Christmas was like Christmases we have known.
At the centre of Christmas is a celebration. The celebration of new life. The celebration of a God who comes in vulnerability and weakness: a child born in poverty to parents with no fixed address. And this child, the one they call God With Us, will grow up to form a community seeking to create a world where all have enough and know that they are enough in God’s eyes.
But that’s not always how we feel. All too often, the celebration of Christmas is overshadowed by the reality of our everyday lives. There is celebration, there is grief, and a whole lot more in between.
Throughout the season of Advent — the four weeks leading up to Christmas — our congregation went on a journey to discover the gift of God’s presence in the darkness and the light. We did so through silence and stillness, through scripture, prayer, and song.
We were helped along by the old hymns. But we also listened to other voices. Voices like Bob Dylan, Dan Mangan, and Over the Rhine. We listened to the voices of songwriters who refuse to shy away from ambiguity. We listened to those who refuse to tell us that everything is okay when everything’s not.
Christmas is a time of celebration, and yet this season can sometimes be overwhelming. It is a time to be greeted by joy and delight. And yet, in a time when the Collins dictionary chose “permacrisis” as the word of the year, the world can also weigh heavily upon us. Poverty. Climate Change. Grief. Racism. Gender-based violence. Queerphobia. Uneasy family relationships.
To this day, there are many in our own community — many like Mary and Joseph — who find themselves wondering if they will ever be able to find home in a community where they’ve been pushed to the margins.
All of this is to say that it is into a world like ours that Jesus is born. It’s into a profoundly messy world and under messy circumstances that God chooses to show up. It’s in the muck and filth of real life that God shows up and declares that even this world as it is, can be redeemed.
Christmas, for me, is about hope. Not some sort of naive optimism, but a hope that another world is possible. It’s the kind of hope that can only start in a less-than-perfect Christmas.
What I love most about Christmas is not the commercial glitz and glam, but the radiance of everyday miracles that show up even in the darkest night. The gift of chosen family. The gift of those who drop everything to welcome the stranger or the refugee. The gift of friends who extend an invite to dinner the first Christmas after a partner dies. The gift of a community unafraid of looking for evidence of the divine spark in the darkness and the light.
And so, in this season, may we continue to look for the divine gift in the darkness, in the light, and everywhere in between. And, in the midst of life’s ambiguity, may we seek to embody the audacious hope that a world full of love — where all have enough, and where all know that they are enough — is possible.
Andrew Stephens-Rennie is the pastor of St. David’s Anglican Church in Castlegar.