Writing a column like this means one is always writing with a certain bent toward the future. One writes Lent-related articles in the autumn months and thinks about Pentecost during the winter. One writes about Advent and Christmas in the spring. One always writes thinking about where the church will be liturgically by the time the article is published. But until this column, which I am composing in early May 2020 and revising in June, I have never written a column wondering what the world will be like by the time any of us is actively preparing to preach through another Advent season.
Chalk it up to yet another way COVID-19 has reshaped not just our daily reality, but what we even dare anticipate weeks and months down the road. And then there’s the enormous outpouring of lament, sorrow, and agitation for reform in racial matters, all sparked by more deaths of people of color at the hands of the police. It seems as if COVID plus the killing of George Floyd in particular created an atmosphere in 2020 unlike most anything that anyone had ever before seen.
Perhaps by the time this Advent/Christmas issue of Reformed Worship is published, many things will have rocked back to at least semi-normal on the health front, and perhaps there will be more hopeful signs on the road to racial justice. Maybe there will be gatherings of some sort in our actual worship spaces again. Maybe Christmas will not be like Easter 2020, when we struggled to celebrate the resurrection, summoning all the joy we could muster even as we held back tears because the whole situation was just so starkly sad. Perhaps as you read this you will be thinking to yourself, “Indeed! Thanks be to God that this year’s Christmas services won’t be like Easter!”
Or maybe not.
In Advent the church restarts its liturgical calendar. By the time we do that this year, we will be about a month away from restarting the regular calendar year too. One can only anticipate that 2020, the year we all welcomed in with joy on New Year’s Eve, will be bid a swift and heartfelt “Good riddance!” by people this December 31.
“2020” was a cool-sounding number. It had numerical symmetry the world had not seen since 1919. Optometrists everywhere took the obvious opportunity to exploit this germane optical number in their advertising. 2020 would be the year to see clearly. But well before even the first quarter of 2020 was over, the world regretted having welcomed the year in the first place. Some are already saying that 2020 will be remembered as “the lost year”: The year when jobs and businesses were lost. The year without vacations. The year without graduations and weddings, without conferences and seminars as had been planned. The year we very simply lost loved ones we now mourn whose funerals could not happen as usual either.
Advent is a time of anticipation, and Christmas the time of celebrating the much-anticipated birth of the Savior. Advent is about fulfilled expectations on the one hand and the anticipation of all ultimate expectations being fulfilled when Christ comes into this world once again. But this year, preachers and the church inevitably will frame this sense of fulfilled expectation by talking about a year littered with unfulfilled things—unfulfilled plans, dreams, and hopes. It will be tempting for preachers to use Advent/Christmas 2020 to try to bracket out all that disappointment.
It will be tempting to say that the new liturgical year begun in Advent resets everything, so let’s not think about what we lost or could not do in 2020—let’s look ahead! The future is always bright in Jesus! Look: the Child is born again anyway. So cast your eyes on the manger, and “the things of earth will grow strangely dim.”
But Advent and Christmas in 2020 present a better opportunity than simple denial or distraction. At Christmas we like to think of ourselves as being like the shepherds and the Magi: we bring to the cradle of the infant Christ our gifts, our humble worship, our adoration. As the traditional carol “In the Bleak Midwinter” puts it, “What shall I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; yet what can I give him: give my heart.”
Perhaps this year it’s OK if the hearts we give are broken in some ways. Maybe this year it’s OK if what we bring to the manger is not just adoration and the fluttery joy we crank up at Christmas, but also our laments. And maybe in our preaching we can signal permission to people to do exactly this.
Many of us know the line from Jürgen Moltmann that Christ was not crucified on an altar between two candles but on a garbage heap between two thugs. Similarly, Christ was not born in a Hallmark store nor even in the average church’s front-yard crèche with the freshest straw a church member could find strewn about for effect. Christ was born into poverty, into the stench and grittiness of this real, fallen earth. What’s more, he was incarnated into the midst of all that precisely because this world was so far gone that nothing short of a new life destined to die in a derelict hell on a cross could even begin to set things aright.
The Child in the manger will not be put off by our backlog of COVID-19 lamenting and our sorrow over abiding racial disparities. The Child will not be surprised by any tears still streaming down our cheeks because the pandemic is still raging or because it has subsided but we still can’t quite get past what happened or because we just hate everything we lost both in terms of past events and in terms of no longer even knowing how to plan for anything coming up.
As I have noted before, the Bible is pretty unsentimental about what we now call Christmas. Matthew darkened his own picture of it all by taking us straight to a slaughter involving infants. John tells us overtly—even before he proclaims the Word made flesh—that the presence of this Word in the world led to rejection by the very people who were supposed to welcome the Word most ardently: “His own did not receive him” (John 1:11).
Jesus was born because of all that disappoints us. Jesus was born because of all the things this broken world routinely takes away from us. So perhaps this is the year to proclaim with all the usual joy that the Lord has come, but also that this same Lord is here for us, ready to listen, ready to lament with us, ready to weep with us, ready to be disappointed with us.
In the midst of all that, though, this Lord does something else in Advent: he points to the Advent still to come. And if Advent/Christmas 2020 feels as disappointing as the year that preceded it, take heart: the Child at the center of it all is coming back to wipe away every tear from every eye. This is not a simple truth. It’s more complex than the average “Merry Christmas” greeting. But it is perhaps the dearest of all Advent hope. Even—no, especially—now. It has not been a lost year.
It has still been the year of our Lord 2020.
This column is provided in cooperation with the Center for Excellence in Preaching. For more on the CEP, its upcoming events, and its online resources, visit cep.calvinseminary.edu.