How do we get to rejoicing at the end of a year marked by disruption, loss, and contagion? What does the feast of the Incarnation of Christ mean in such a difficult time? Where do we find a sense of hope and lightness of spirit?
The Venerable Bede recounts a Christmas story about Bishop Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. Cuthbert was probably born into a noble family, in the Kingdom of Northumbria (northeastern England). He became a monk in his early 20s, possibly after serving in the military. In 664, Cuthbert survived the plague, in the first recorded global pandemic. Cuthbert was renowned for his deep faith, asceticism, and prayers effecting miraculous cures for the infirm. When he felt called to a contemplative life, he retired as a hermit to an austere setting on the island Inner Farne.
Just before he was elected as Bishop, Cuthbert received some monastic visitors, who had rowed out from Lindisfarne to his island hermitage on Christmas Day. In the middle of their feast, a cranky Cuthbert stopped the joyful celebration with warnings that they must prepare for temptations at all times and repent. The brothers chided Cuthbert that Christmas is supposed to be a joyful feast and he relented. After more feasting and storytelling, Cuthbert again stopped the feast to tell them that they should be praying and keeping vigil. The brothers reminded Cuthbert that the announcement of the angels meant that rejoicing was for the entire world. Returning to their revelry, Cuthbert interrupted a third time to warn them of tribulation that was to come.
This Christmas story of mirthful and moping monks is hardly cheerful. It is a good illustration of two approaches by deeply faithful people trying to observe a holy day in time of plague. Some of us feel solemn. Some need to rejoice and celebrate. Most of us are a bit of both. We want to be together, enjoying our community. There may be dinner and prayer and even some disagreement, which sounds much like many families except the monks don’t have to figure out how to entertain the kids.
It has been a rough year. We are all facing the relentless sameness of staying at home as much as possible, working in a most unusual context, and trying to make sense of the holiday, when one day can run into the next without a lot of distinction. We need to mark the holiness of the season in our own ways.
I wonder if it would be helpful for us to remember that the Christmas story, even with the angelic choir and the miraculous birth of the Savior, is not exactly a Hallmark movie? It has its jagged edges. It starts as young couple, recently married and in the later stages of pregnancy, travels on foot (80 miles over 4-7 days) from Nazareth to Bethlehem. There is no room at the inn, so they stay in the place with the animals. With the cry of a new baby, everything changes.
God exalts Mary, who proclaimed the greatness of the Lord in difficult circumstances.
God reveals the plan to save the world to Joseph, who may have felt disgraced by an inexplicable pregnancy.
God sends the light of life to shine into a world scarred by shadows.
From a manger in Bethlehem, the Almighty embraces and sanctifies our weakness and vulnerability.
The baby grows up to perform miracles, although he is accused of sorcery.
When the world crucified Christ, God would not allow death to be the last word and gave us the sure hope of resurrection.
If we can pause for a few moments and reflect, putting aside the tinsel and the relentlessly programmed commercial Muzak cheerfulness, we may discover the real wonder-filled nature of the season in the real Christmas story. It is not about perfection, for us or the feast or the world. It is all about God’s willingness to be with us in the midst of imperfection.
Try not to be afraid, my friends, and if we cannot be mirthful let’s try not to be cranky, at least not all the time. The Holy One has come among us. From now on, the troubles of the present time fade in comparison to the joys that are to come. From your cathedral, we wish you a joyous and safe celebration. Merry Christmas!
Heavenfield: Exploring Medieval Landscapes. “Plague comes to Lindisfarne, Christmas c. 683.”