Can we celebrate the feast of Christmas this year in the midst of this pandemic and the scourge of COVID-19?
If our idea of celebration is restricted to participating physically as a community at the Eucharist or meeting together as a large family for a festive lunch or dinner, or if our celebrations are merely enjoying the delicacies that have been part of our celebrations in the past, then we most definitely cannot. This is because it is unlikely that in many parts of the world, large groups will be allowed to gather together. Besides, this type of celebration will be an abuse to the millions of people all over the world who have been made redundant and so have no source of income, and to the millions, who because of the pandemic have been reduced to a state of nothingness. We are all in the same storm, but there are millions who even in this storm are in wobbly rafts, and without even a paddle. When this is the reality of our world, we cannot and must not celebrate as we usually did. Our external celebrations must be muted, muffled and hushed much like the millions of the poor, the marginalized and the downtrodden.
Even as this is so, it does not mean that we cannot celebrate in a totally different way. We can, we must and we will. We will celebrate with the poorest of the poor. Our celebrations will be such that it will offer them hope in their hopelessness, joy in their misery, hope in their despair and love in their fear. We will do this because this is what Christmas is. It is the birth of hope, the birth of love and the prototype of selflessness and self-giving. It is the birth of God.
Two of the four canonical Gospels (Matthew and Luke) have stories of the birth of Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel, the annunciation of the birth of Jesus is to Joseph in a series of dreams, in Luke it is to Mary. The Gospel of John has a prologue which is in many ways akin to an Infancy Narrative.
In what follows we will go through the Infancy Narrative of Matthew, and try to relate it to our present times and especially this time of the pandemic and the scourge of COVID-19.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the story of the birth of Jesus is narrated through three dreams of Joseph (Mt 1:18-25; 2:13-15; 2:19-23). However, after the first and second each, there is an episode, through which Matthew makes his narrative richer (Mt 2:1-12; 16-18).
1. The First dream of Joseph (1:18-25): At the end of his genealogy, Matthew had changed the narrative by stating that unlike the others in the genealogy who were the fathers of their sons, Joseph was not the father of Jesus. Rather, Joseph was the husband of Mary who gave birth to Jesus. In the first dream, Matthew tells us how this was so. Here, Joseph is told that his betrothed is with child which is not his, but through the intervention of God.
There are many points in these verses which we can relate to our present situation. The first of these is the confusion of Joseph when the angel tells him that he must take his fiancée Mary as his wife though she is with child. Joseph had made up his mind before the dream, to divorce Mary. This could be either because he suspected her of adultery or because he did not want to marry a woman who had been set aside by God for a special purpose.
Like Joseph we too are confused with the present situation of the pandemic. We can make no sense of it whatever. The varied explanations that have been with regard to the origin, spread, control, and precautions that must be taken, are changing with each passing day. Like Joseph, we too want to decide what is best for us. However, even as we make up our minds to do, so, the voice of God speaks to us of God’s saving help. We, like Joseph, are called to believe that “all” that is happening is ordained by God and that God is still and always in control.
Another point in these verses is the explanation of the angel, which is not logical or reasonable. We too can find no logical or reasonable explanation to this scourge. All that we have are unfounded theories and baseless allegations. Joseph’s openness allowed him to believe. Our openness must also lead us to believe.
Still another is that it is in the same announcement that the name of the child and the meaning of that name are revealed. The child to be born will be named Jesus which means ‘Saviour.’ The name Jesus is significant. Jesus was a fairly common name. Thus, by the choice of this name, God shows that God’s son will be ‘common’ and in doing so identify totally with us as humans. Our God in Jesus is not condemner or destroyer, but one who will save. This alone ought to cause for joy, hope and optimism.
Finally, Matthew shows by using the universalizing “all” that it is God who ordains everything that takes place. This Saviour will continue to be present as Emmanuel.
The extension of the name to Emmanuel means that God continues to be an integral part of the world. We can seek and find God here in the midst of this trial and challenge. We must.
2. The search of the Magi: (2:1-12): Matthew contrasts the assiduous search of the Magi with the negative reaction of Herod and his cohorts. The latter, because of their selfish desire for power and the fear that accompanies it, reject the child. The Magi, who seek sincerely, find the King. The finding of Jesus by the Magi indicates that Jesus as King and Saviour, is not restricted to a specific group of people. He is available to anyone and everyone who genuinely seeks him. That the Magi return to their country by another road might be because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. However, it can also mean that because they encountered the king, their lives could not be the same again.
In our present situation, it is not easy for us to find God. We search but cannot find. We look for stars that will lead the way, but they do not seem to shine in the night sky. At times therefore, we are tempted to give up. However, like the Magi, we need to keep searching and seeking assiduously. If we overcome our selfish desires and are consequently fearless in our search, we will indeed find. God will reveal God’s will to us. Once we find God in these troubled times, our lives too will take on a new meaning.
3. The second dream of Joseph (2:13-15): Matthew summarises here, the whole Exodus story. Like God was with Israel as it went from bondage to liberation, so here, God continues to be with God’s Messiah. God’s plans cannot and will not go awry. Though there will be people in power like Herod, who will attempt to thwart God’s plans for the whole human race, their attempts will fail.
4. The ruthlessness of Herod fueled by his selfishness (2:16-17): That Herod would kill those who were a threat to his egotism and desire to remain in power is believable, even if he perceived the threat as coming from a child. However, through his quotation from Jeremiah, Matthew expresses confidence that even in this seeming disastrous happening of the massacre of children, God will bring hope, joy and deliverance.
Even in this pandemic, there have been many people in positions of power who have taken advantage of their positions. Reports of Governments reacting violently to a difference of opinion, incarcerating without evidence, those who are on the side of truth and justice are too many to be enumerated. Governments using force and draconian laws to stifle the voices of prophets are commonplace. Children and youth being raped, murdered and burnt is an everyday occurrence. The situation today seems worse than at the time of Jesus. It almost seems hopeless.
In these times, the poor and marginalized have been trampled upon more than they otherwise are. Those who do so, use the pandemic as their excuse. The prophecy of Jeremiah of Rachel’s voice wailing and lamenting loudly in Ramah is apt for the present situation. Though Rachel refuses to be consoled, the following verses in Jeremiah (Jer 31:16-17) speak of hope. It is God who offers this hope and God’s hope is not deceptive. We need to continue to raise our voices in protest at the injustices and wail and lament loudly till our voices are heard. They will be like Rachel’s voice was.
5. The third dream of Joseph (2:19-23): Though there was nothing in scripture which spoke of the Messiah coming from Nazareth, the Messiah does indeed come from there. The choice of Nazareth as the place where Jesus the Messiah would come from, is to show that even our best laid plans or the sure facts that we think we have, come to naught in front of God. God works in amazing ways. God works even when we cannot see God working. God works for our good, even when we cannot see that good immediately.
The pandemic has shown us that all our advancement in science leaves much to be desired. It reveals that a dead virus can hold the whole world to ransom. It exposes our shallow knowledge and with it our shallow lives. It tells that because of the individualistic manner in which we have lived till now, we are in this predicament. It invites us to realise not only our dependence on each other and on nature, but more importantly our interdependence. It invites us to believe that despite all that we do to frustrate God’s plans for us and our world, God will continue to come to us in the hope that we will open our eyes and see, that we will open our ears and listen and that we will open our hearts and love unconditionally, just as God loves us.
This unconditional love of God was manifested in the most tangible manner when Jesus was born. We celebrate God’s earnest care for us and our world, by responding with the same earnestness that God shows.
Practical ways in which Christmas may be celebrated this year:
1. Make a resolution to spend only a quarter of your regular expenses on Christmas. This will help your personal and family celebrations to be muted and subdued and in keeping with the mood in the world. The balance three quarters can be donated in a variety of ways.
2. Donate masks, soaps (avoid sanitizers because they are more hype and expensive than effective) gloves to health care workers directly or through a religious or other charitable organization that has a proven track record.
3. Prepare hampers of foodstuffs like rice, dal, pulses, oil, salt, sugar and distribute these to the families of daily wage earners and the poor irrespective of caste or creed. If one is afraid of going out in public, one can do this through a charitable organization which will come to your doorstep to pick these hampers.
4. Youth groups can organize to go to the homes of senior citizens living by themselves and offer to help by cleaning the homes, buying groceries, giving a hair-cut, trimming nails and other allied works.
5. Professional counsellors may offer counselling services free of charge for at least a period of time. Business persons and those who have begun creative start-ups can offer online or other jobs to the unemployed.