Blessed Christmas 2020! Just adding the year changes the sound of that Christmas blessing. Christmas 2020 sounds different. It has a tone of sadness, strain, heartfelt grief, and still uncertainty; and also hope - not full, but hope-beginning, a distant or quiet note, in personal strength and collective caring, in vaccines, new global leadership, new awareness and we pray action for those most disadvantaged by poverty, race, identity, ability, or for the earth in crisis; sounds of hope that we pray build into the glorious song of John’s gospel prologue, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of God’s only child, full of grace and truth.” We long to be singing this Christmas 2020. But solo voices, homebound voices have to suffice. And they do, “Joy to the world!” But not as loud and strong as we wish.
Through this Advent we have been singing the candle-lighting song, “Each Winter As the Year Grows Older.” It began the procession of light last Christmas Eve night. The tune is called “Carol of Hope” by William Gay, text by Annabeth Gay. Each week we’ve sung a different verse followed by verse 5:
Vs. 1 Each winter as the year grows older,we each grow older too. The chill sets in a little colder; the verities we knew seem shaken and untrue.
Vs. 2 When race and class cry out for treason, when sirens call for war, they over-shout the voice of reason and scream till we ignore all we held dear before.
Vs. 3 Yet I believe beyond believing that life can spring from death, that growth can flower from our grieving, that we can catch our breath and turn transfixed by faith.
Vs. 4 So even as the sun is turning to journey to the north, the living flame, in secret burning, can kindle on the earth and bring God's love to birth.
Vs. 5 O Child of ecstasy and sorrows, O Prince of peace and pain, brighten today's world by tomorrow's, renew our lives again; Lord Jesus, come and reign!
When we chose it, I am not sure we fully knew how profound the words are for 2020. It took a dear friend in deep grief to help me see, “Yet I believe beyond believing that life can spring from death, that growth can flower from our grieving, that we can catch our breath and turn transfixed by faith. …can kindle on the earth and bring God’s love to birth.” Yes, this is the sound and song of Advent 2020, preparing us for the song of John’s gospel prologue again this morning, quietly, but surely, The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth.
There are other songs that are part of the repertoire of popular carols for Christmas, that sound different in 2020:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the Yule-tide gay
From now on our troubles will be miles away
Through the years we all will be together
If the fates allow… when will the fates allow?
Or… I'll be home for Christmas
You can count on me
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents under the tree
Christmas eve will find me
Where the love light gleams
I'll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams
…and so we dream of homecomings and gathering again with loved ones, with troubles out of sight and miles away, with family and friends, home for Christmas, not only in our dreams.
The words from Isaiah this morning to a people of Israel in exile, speak of the beautiful feet of the messenger who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says… “Your God reigns.” And invites the people to join in singing… “for all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of God.”
This is a carol of hope for Christmas 2020. That we will sing again together of God’s salvation, of God’s reign, for all the ends of the earth, including for the earth itself.
Shifting senses, at least one person I’ve read has used the metaphor of “20/20” vision for the time ahead. That this year 2020 has blessed us with clearer vision of our world, exposing as we know, economic and health disparities in nations and neighbourhoods, systemic racism and continuing colonialism in ourselves and organizations, a planet in crisis; and the mobilizing of people to act and demand accountability to one another, for the lifting up of those in minorities, for the earth, and future generations, for greater equity and reconciliation together. A pandemic has further exposed for all of us to see what others have known and suffered, and, a capacity for greater generosity, to respond in a crisis, to be kind and caring and stay calm together, speaking up and working for what can be better.
That 20/20 vision is calling us to be observant. To see and therefore act differently together. I like and I am thinking about that word, observant. Not a disconnected and distant observer. But observant as both a sense of paying attention to and seeing differently, and as used in some religious communities, observant describing following, being devoted to a religious or spiritual practise in community with others. Is God calling us out of 2020 to be observant/s like this together?
We had a 40 plus year old plum tree fall in our back yard this week. The snow on Monday weighed down the branches enough that it broke at what we discovered was a rotting main trunk right at the base. It fell gently we think, with no one hearing a great crack. It fell to the ground in the one direction it could without hitting the house, the fence, or into a neighbour’s yard, doing no damage, and dramatically opening up our back yard. For those watching, here’s a picture for you. It feels like that tree falling is like this year of 2020. Any number of things have fallen and present a very different way of seeing everything around us, including one another. Sadly, much damage has been done to many lives, and the earth itself, and continues; but so also the need to respond and people responding, that we pray, is here to stay, for the good of all, and to be observant together.
A last word that sounds dry and disconnected for a Christmas morning, even Christmas 2020. It is a phrase mentioned by the principal of the Vancouver School of Theology, Richard Topping in his Advent 2020 letter. He writes that a message for Advent/Christmas this year is “the indicative precedes the imperative.” With good humour and insight, he acknowledges that sounds rather academic and removed, offering little to a world reeling from everything 2020 has held. But based on the Advent reading from Philippians 4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice! Let your gentleness be made known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” he stresses that the indicative, “God is near,” precedes the imperatives to rejoice, to be gentle, not be anxious, to pray in everything. This is critical to our hope. God’s gracious indicatives precede what is asked of us in response because the imperative alone, especially in 2020, can feel only like a burden, an admonishing to always do better and it never be enough. The indicative follows again, “And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” And this Christmas 2020 sings with God’s indicatives, “God reigns… all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of God.” “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days God has spoken to us by a son… the reflection of God’s glory, the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory… full of grace and truth.” God’s indicative, eternal indication/justification of grace upon grace sings this day for us and for all the world. Strengthening us by God’s Spirit, to be faithful observants together into this new calendar year, for the good of all as God desires. Blessed Christmas 2020 by God’s grace. Let it be so, in all our relations. Amen.