I Corinthians 13:13-
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (NIV)
What a year. I ended last year's Christmas Column with the wish for the double-digit year of 2020 to be doubly good. It was the year to see clearly, after all. Well, it certainly was double; but double trouble for most folks it seems. I admit I was one of the ones who were a bit cavalier about the coronavirus, COVID-19. I figured it would be another one of the "flu alarms" alarms that have been sounded over the years which turned out to be either mostly contained or simply no more deadly than the everyday risks we take just by living. I was so very wrong. I have now had quite a few people I know and some I was related to become infected and some of them didn't make it; and just because the pandemic occupied front-and-center, doesn't mean everything else took a day off. We still lost loved ones to other things as well.
When we started counting, my wife Jill and I wound up with around 20 people she, or I, or both of us knew well, who celebrated Christmas in 2019, but who will not be at tables this time around. Tears will be shed at that. Some were our relatives — kin by blood, and friends by choice.
Those of us who will gather to celebrate Christmas 2020 may sometimes be doing so virtually. For the first time ever, our youngest son Mason who lives in Los Angeles, will not be "home" this Christmas to celebrate with us, his brother Morgan, sister-in-law Heather and nephews Blake and Logan; and that makes his Mom and me rather sad.
We will do the Face-time thing, but it won't be the same. Doubtless, many of you have similar stories. Add to that, the damage to jobs, and the economy this year, back-and-forth-in-person-and-virtual school, canceled events and contests, masks, social distancing, the rancorous and divisive political campaigns, the ubiquitous negativity, a boatload of downright meanness and outright stupidity, social unrest and many more unpleasantries we can think of, and the term "Merry Christmas" seems to be almost an oxymoron. In one current broadcast political ad, one of the people being "interviewed" almost spits "It's us or them!"
Really? Are we so divided that we now regard fellow Georgians/ fellow Americans as the enemy?
We ask the questions Scrooge asked his nephew Fred, when he growled "What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry?" What right or reason indeed? Where is God in all of this?
Many of you probably at church or at home have the tradition of lighting candles on an Advent Wreath during the Sundays leading up to Christmas with usually the last candle, the Christ Candle, being lit on Christmas Eve-the preceding candles representing Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace being lit beforehand.
The answers to Scrooge's questions can be found within those concepts; along with Faith mentioned in the famous quote from Corinthians above. This what we have to be Merry about. The concept of "Hope" particularly sustains us.
That particular feeling has been around as long as people have been people. The ancient myth of Pandora and her box (or jar in some stories) says that after curiosity got the better of her, and Pandora set loose all the ills that plague humankind, the one thing left to be released was Hope. The latter-day incarnations of the original super-hero, Superman, (a very messianic character, himself) say that the famous sigil worn on his chest is the family crest and the Kryptonian symbol for Hope. (In the recent reboot, Lois Lane, by the way, tells him on Earth, it's an "S.") Christopher Reeve gained fame by portraying the Man of Steel in a series of movies beginning in 1978. He became a quadriplegic after an equestrian accident in 1995. The irony of that, after playing an invulnerable hero, was not lost upon him. However, he did not let that paralysis stop him. He and his wife Dana started a foundation focusing on spinal cord injuries and research to cure the condition.
Reeve himself returned to acting to go along with his activism, saying, "When we have hope, we discover powers within ourselves we may have never known-the power to make sacrifices, to endure, to heal, and to love. Once we choose hope, everything is possible." He became a different sort of hero to a lot of people.
The message of Christmas flies in the face of despair. It is not only a message of joy, peace, deliverance, and salvation; but also a message of hope. When God came into the messiness of the mortal world a couple of thousand years or so ago, he came not as the prince for whom the Magi searched in Herod's palace. He came as an ordinary baby, who became the Prince of Peace, to show us the Way, the Truth, and the Life; and to give us the Joy that is not dependent on circumstantial happiness or unhappiness. We are not hopeless. We do not give up. We retain that Hope for a better tomorrow and a better year.
God is still in the business of providing Hope. Our first responders and our health care workers who put themselves at risk give me hope that the essential good of humanity is still there. The countless volunteer hours that people have put in on behalf of school children; the homeless, the helpless, and the needy give me hope that we will weather this storm as people have weathered the storms of a global pandemic 100 years ago; along with a decidedly uncivil war, two World Wars, assorted police actions and skirmishes and even terrorist attacks on American soil.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" on Christmas Day in 1863 after his son joined the Union army — much to the chagrin of his father — was wounded in the War; and about two years after the elder Longfellow's wife was killed in a fire.
Given all that, he could have succumbed to hopelessness, and the first verses of the work reflect the kind of doubts and fears we all have in the face of disease, death, and war. Longfellow rediscovers his hope in the last verse:
"Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."
The new proposed vaccines give people hope as scientists, researchers and medical personnel use their God-given knowledge and abilities to solve an evil plague. That shows us what we can do when we put our minds and hearts into working together, rather than tearing each other apart. How many of the world's problems would vanish if we truly loved God and our neighbors and took action to show it? We ask why a loving God allows many things.
Maybe as a recent reading in the Upper Room posited, why do WE allow such things? We have within us the capability to end many things that torment and distress mankind, if we just want to do it. My Hope for us all, my brothers and sisters, is for a Christmas and a New Year filled with Hope, Health, and Happiness. May our Faith be strengthened. May the Wrong fail and the Right prevail in this next year and the years to come. May we choose Hope. Merry Christmas!