Bishop Martin has words of hope for us this Christmas
For most of us, Christmas is going to be very different this year.
Very different from any Christmas we have had before, and hopefully from any Christmas in the future.
While the present buying and the food shopping carries on apace – though probably more online than we would normally – so many aspects of what make Christmas will have to be different.
And all because we cannot meet up like we are used to. We cannot be with friends, colleagues and family in the ways we did last year, and all the years before. No physically meeting up for the usual round of parties, dropping by to visit, meeting up for a meal.
My wife and I host a party early every December and fill our house with a mixture of guests from around the county, people who serve the county in wonderful ways but who don’t usually meet up in the normal course of events.
So we decided we needed to do something this year so people could still meet up, and we hosted the party on the same evening it usually takes place – but online, on Zoom.
It was fun, and people had all sorts of conversations and met people they had not met before, but of course it was not the same. There is something about being physically with people that is so fundamental to who we are as human beings. We are physical beings, after all, and are meant to physically be with one another.
I think we have not even begun to realise the toll it has taken not being able to have the usual easy physical contact, whether that’s a simple handshake or an almighty hug, or just being relaxed in a room together, or even going shopping without having to watch how close we get. We are seeing the impact on young people, who, however adept they are with online technology, know that it is just a supplement, something to keep them in touch, between the real meeting together.
And the impact is being felt by all of us, even if we don’t recognise it yet.
And then at Christmas itself, while we are allowed to gather in a bubble of up to three households, and stay overnight with each other, for many this may not be possible, or may not feel safe. There was a significant surge in cases in the USA after their Thanksgiving celebrations in late November, and the same could well happen here after Christmas, if we are not careful.
And while my own family is sharing Christmas with one other household – of friends – this will be the first time in her life my wife, who is German, will not be spending at least part of the Christmas or New Year period with her parents and sister. There are very few of us, in fact, who will be spending Christmas in ways that feel ‘normal’.
We will all make the best of it, and in the spirit of so much of what has helped this year, we will want to make the best of it for those who are facing hardship or loneliness, or bearing the grief of the death of a loved one, or suffering from illness.
Individuals and families, churches and community groups, will reach out and care in a multitude of ways this Christmas.
But for everyone it will be that physical thing, that easy physical being with, that will be missing.
We know what an incredible difference it makes – being with people we like, who care for us, who lift our spirits, who we have fun with, who are important to us and we know we are important to them.
Family, friends or colleagues, whoever they are, being with them, and with them as we used to, would make such a difference to us. And it will probably be six more months before vaccinations will mean we can all get a bit closer again.
We have found all sorts of ways to buoy ourselves up these past nine months, but there’s little to beat being physically with people we care about. Which, despite the restrictions, is still what Christmas is about.
And for me it is really helpful to see this connection. Because that really is what Christmas is about – and I don’t just mean us wanting to be able to meet up.
In a mysterious way beyond our human understanding, God wanted just the same thing – to physically be with the people he cared about – which of course is everyone.
The Christian belief in the ‘incarnation’ is about God – the one beyond time and space – becoming human, in a particular time, and space.
And that is all about physically being with the people God cares about. Which means that not only does God somehow know what it is like going through all we are going through, and know what it’s like for us not being able to be with each other in ways we long to be, it means that God is fully with us, and has been with us, through all of this, and God being fully with us is the reason for our hope – the hope that gives us determination and endurance, compassion and kindness.
And will bring us back together.
-- The Right Rev Martin Seeley is Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich