Stepping into the holy story

 

Finding the blessing in a pandemic-altered Christmas

By Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today

Photo of 18th century village decorated for Christmas.It was early December, and my husband and I were enjoying a Charles Dickens festival in historic New Castle, Delaware — a riverfront neighborhood established in 1651 and surprisingly left untouched by time.

As we passed taverns offering mulled cider and stately homes flickering with candles in the windows, I kept saying, “I feel as if I’ve been here before.” The sense of belonging in a place new to me grew with each step I took on the cobbled stones. We walked to the church in the center of the square, and in the opening of its large double doors, I realized why everything was familiar.

“I’m in my Advent calendar!” I squealed, garnering confused and concerned looks from my husband, as well as the older couple in earshot of my peculiar proclamation.

The Advent calendar I was speaking of was a gift from my grandmother. Its scene was that of an 18th-century village with shops and taverns and people scurrying about preparing for Christmas. In the center of the village stood a church with large double doors to be opened on Dec. 25.

Each morning, I would open the door with the day’s number on it and be welcomed into places such as “Ye Olde Bakery” or the “Toymaker’s Shoppe.” At night, by the light of the Christmas tree, I would stare at the calendar, wondering what it would be like to be part of that colonial Christmas story. What sound would my shoes make on cobbled stone? How much light would a window candle cast onto the street?

I stared so long and so hard that I could feel the warmth of the fireplaces thawing frost-kissed cheeks when I stepped inside each Advent door. I wanted to be part of this narrative and to experience it firsthand. But there were no cobbled stone streets where I lived, just blacktop and cracked concrete sidewalks.

The calendar mesmerized me for years to come. When tape could no longer hold the calendar together, I tossed it into the garbage, along with the dream of being part of a story that had captivated me. Then one day, when I least expected it, I was “in” my Advent calendar. The story was unfolding in front of me, and I was part of it.

There’s another story I long to be part of: the Christmas story. I yearn to experience the narrative of salvation firsthand, and I often find myself staring long and hard at the nativity scene that sits on a table in the living room, trying to imagine all of the holy sights and sounds. As I stare, I wonder, “What is my role in this pageant of grace?”

In years past, I have never had the time to really answer that question. There were always things to distract me — gifts to wrap, cookies to make, worship services to plan, church caroling dinners and decorating parties. I believe this year, though, we are being given a chance to reassess and define our roles. I believe we are being given an opportunity to step into the narrative in a powerful, albeit uncomfortable and not exactly what we might have wanted, new way.

With many congregations forgoing in-person Christmas Eve worship services due to COVID-19 precautions, we will be faced with emotions not associated with the celebration of this holy night. We will perhaps feel the fear of uncertainty and a disorienting sense of displacement.

But wasn’t there uncertainty and displacement that very first Christmas? If you think you are disappointed that you won’t be able to sit in your church pew, imagine how Mary must have felt giving birth away from home and in a stable. Yet God was there — and is still here with us.

What if our COVID-19-tinged Christmas is actually a moment to make the story of salvation real? What if the most beautiful Christmas hymn is not performed by a choir, but sung in your off-key voice over Zoom or the phone to a lonely friend? What if the light that shines in the dark comes from our hearts, rather than from those little candles we hold while singing “Silent Night”? What if this year, by finding ourselves in a place we have never been before, scattered from one another without the traditions we cherish, we discover that we have an opportunity to participate in salvation’s scenes beyond a sanctuary?

My prayer for us all is this Christmas we find ourselves standing in awe as we squeal with the realization, “I’m in the Christmas story!”

Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today.

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