We were going to do Christmas “big” this year. How else to make up for the absence of family? Or the strange way we’re doing church right now (through a camera and a TV screen)?
By the time we made it to pick out our Christmas tree it seemed as if other people had beaten us to the punch. Everyone wanted to do Christmas “big” this year — or at least early. And so we packed us Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, hoping the big hole in the branches would be hidden by the wall. The first broken ornament that fell off the twigs was like a testament of our dashed expectations for Christmas — or our shattered hopes for the year.
We’re not the only people to have plans interrupted this year. I know plenty of people who planned for a wedding, only to find months and months of work go down the drain when everything shut down. I know, too, that you can be invited to weddings over Zoom. (Although I have not asked whether you spend the first 10 minutes of the wedding making sure everyone’s audio is working like you do with every other Zoom meeting).
For whatever reason it seemed like a lot of our friends had babies this year. And so we’ve heard stories about worry while couples waited for the due day, hoping to avoid illness; and COVID-19 restrictions in hospitals that made it hard for family to travel. Or babies that had to be quarantined. Or one friend who had to miss the birth of his child while his wife labored alone. Families have grown over FaceTime, both together and apart through the mediation of a screen that, no matter how hard you try, you can’t go through (believe me, our daughter has tried).
Maybe you lost someone this year. You never plan on that. It comes as a shock or an interruption, even if it’s not a surprise. And you grieve for the fact that you can’t grieve as you should, separated from family, or from church, or from the presence of God who seems to hold you close when everything is going well. Maybe you had to say goodbye to someone you love via a screen. Maybe you could only make it to the funeral remotely, separated from all that you love by a piece of glass, and a seemingly immeasurable distance.
Whether divided by windows in nursing homes or hospitals, or 6 feet apart in your back yard, interruption has been the name of the year.
I wonder what kind of year Mary was having in the year 1 BC (or year 0? Or 3 AD?) Maybe she was excited, planning for a wedding. Things were falling into place for her.
The Gospel of Luke tells the story of when the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth. The angel appears to Mary and announces the good news: she will bear a son, “the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Angelic messengers were not unfamiliar characters in Biblical literature, but the appearance is certainly surprising. The reassurance, “Do not fear” always accompanies angels. Even in the ancient world things seemed to operate within fixed bounds — hence the surprise.
Maybe there was the belief that God would appear, but not in the ordinary life of someone like Mary. The creation itself fixed the boundaries of heaven as something hard and immovable — the firmament. In Genesis chapter one, the waters of the earth are divided from the waters of the heavens by the dome of the sky — something impermeable and immovable. The waters above formed the celestial sea, which appears elsewhere in Scripture and in literature as a vision of heaven far removed from Earth.
Former poet laureate Billy Collins illustrates the point in his poem, “the dead.” Collins writes, “The dead are always looking down on us, they say,/ while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,/they are looking down through the glass-bottom boats of heaven/as they row themselves slowly through eternity.” The gap is unbridgeable. We go about the work of life. The saints and angels of heaven row through eternity on the glassy, celestial sea.
We understand things different than ancient cosmologists. But we understand what it’s like when God feels far away.
What the angel Gabriel announces is that God has shattered the firmament, the barrier between ordinary and divine, between time and eternity, between heaven and earth, between God and creation. God’s own self will be born as the completion of all that God has made — God in creation.
The birth of Jesus shatters the glass that separates us from God — as if you have been able to reach through the screen that keeps you from everything you love until the barrier no longer exists.
The year makes us wait, but promises an end to the waiting. Nothing will be impossible. God will be in the manger. And all that keeps us from God will never intrude on us again — shattered on the cross by the savior born in Bethlehem. Merry Christmas!
Will Scott is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dalton. His column appears the fourth Friday of the month.