I took the time to reread my annual letter to the parish from Advent 2020. In anticipation of Christmas last year, I reminded everyone that we would find a way to celebrate the birth of the Lord that would help people remain safe as well as participative in this wonderful mystery. Then I listed ways for families and individuals to be present, even if they couldn’t come to church.
I wrote that our parish had been streaming Mass for nearly 10 years and our new church building with three cameras and skilled volunteer technicians could provide a very powerful at-home experience for those uncomfortable with gathering in a larger group.
˜I encouraged families to participate as a family, and I reminded them that the local bishop had lifted the obligation of Mass attendance ever since COVID-19 had shut down our parishes the previous March.
Even at that, I told parishioners that we would have a number of Masses and that every other pew was closed off, that the church air filtration was good, and that people were to wear masks to protect one another.
All of that was a year ago. When Christmas arrived, the parish music director was out due to COVID-19. So was another priest who was scheduled to help with Masses. Attendance at Mass was low, and it was hard for me to truly celebrate even though I knew many people were with me remotely.
I wondered if I had oversold my concerns, but then I also knew that the vaccines had not yet been made available to anyone.
A year has passed and many more parishioners are coming back to church on a regular basis. Nonetheless, there are still clouds of worry hanging over people’s heads.
Some people fear mixing with others in an indoor setting. Those who are immunocompromised have told me they continue to appreciate the quality of our online streaming of Mass.
Others are upset that people worry about COVID-19, even stating they don’t want to live with that kind of fear controlling them. Then there are those who are tired and exhausted because of the way our society has become polarized over absolutely everything from race to politics to mask-wearing to immigration to church leadership.
In short, people need a savior and they need that savior now! People are hurting and feeling torn apart.
It would be nice if we could approach this Christmas with great peace of heart and goodwill among all. Likely that will not be the case for many.
However, I wonder if it is precisely because of these challenging times, not in spite of them, that Christmas is especially important this year. After all, we are celebrating Emmanuel — God with us — in our own time and circumstances. We are not simply recalling the wondrous birth of more than 2,000 years ago!
Jesus’ birth took place in a time of crisis and challenge for many people.
The Hebrew people were overwhelmed by the Roman Empire. They were surrounded by people of different cultures and values. Worship of other gods flourished. They longed for freedom and the right to be their own people. Some wanted to placate Rome while others wanted to rebel!
It was into that era and time that Jesus’ birth took place. The Scriptures remind us he was born among the poor, and Joseph and Mary had to flee to protect him. Life was hard. Yet we celebrate his birth as the ultimate sign of hope.
Hope is not some artificial construct of mind that causes people to overlook reality. Instead, hope is all about reality. It admits difficulties even as it reminds people they are not abandoned or alone.
As I talk to people on the issues of our present day, I discover that many feel they’re powerless, abandoned or alone. Some are hanging on to a small branch as they feel they are falling off a cliff.
A mistake that we often make is thinking of hope only in terms of the future. We even say God will protect or God will save. Hope actually is about the present. Relief is already here in the belief of this season: God truly is with us now.
Interestingly, such belief does not take away the issues at hand. What it does provide is the strength to continue to walk through the various difficulties and concerns. Hope has an element of certainty to it; with the virtue of hope, we intentionally acknowledge that God dwells in this land.
In the weeks before Christmas last year I was tempted not to put up Christmas decorations in my own house, rather certain that no one else would be visiting or see the tree or manger scene. I was not depressed by that thought, simply aware of reality.
But I chose to decorate as much as other years because I wanted to remember that this wondrous mystery of the Incarnation is real and needs to be celebrated. God truly is with us; we don’t want to forget.
Father Herb Weber is founding pastor of St. John XXIII Catholic Church in Perrysburg, Ohio. His weekly podcast can be found at 23.church.