Oddly enough, it was a Bunnings television advertisement that said it best: “Everyone is looking forward to Christmas more this year than any other year.” Indeed, after the 2020 we have had, we can’t wait.
There is something about Christmas that promises a moment of refreshment and repose after all we have gone through – or may face next year.
Months and months of patiently enduring the abnormal have given way to a palpable impatience to have Christmas – hopefully as normal a Christmas as we can have in the extraordinary circumstances we still find ourselves facing.
Such a common desire testifies to the special place the festival has right across our secular, multifaith society. And also to our collective need of what Christmas, ever so briefly, can bring.
There is a phrase from the carol O Holy Night that the church I work for part-time has chosen for its Christmas theme. It captures the promise of Christmas in 2020 well – “the weary world rejoices”.
“Weary” is a good word to describe our mood as the year draws to an end.
Before, when the pandemic had just arrived and upturned so much of our take-it-for-granted life, the word was “unprecedented”. It expressed our sense of shock at changes we hadn’t ever imagined we would face.
At the beginning of 2020, the relentless drought and the terrifying fires brought the words “apocalyptic” or even “biblical” to our lips. The judgment of God, perhaps?
The most pervasive is the Christmas of community goodwill. This Christmas is for everyone.
But now it is just “weary”.
Weary because, even though now there is the realistic promise of a vaccine next year, this virus has been dogging us for what seems forever. There are the little annoying things that have become wearying. There is just so much hand sanitising, Zoom meeting, social distancing and mask remembering that you can keep up with.
But there have been the more serious causes of weariness – further isolation from dear friends and family, anxiety about business viability, keeping or finding employment, fear of illness and mortality.
How can Christmas be the time that “the weary world rejoices”?
To answer that, we must start with the realisation that Christmas is complex. This is because in fact there are a number of different Christmases – maybe four – going on concurrently and interacting with each other.
We can quickly pass over the retail Christmas, the one that begins months ahead of the actual day, and that unique Christmas for the southern hemisphere, the start-of-holidays Christmas.
It’s the other two Christmases lying beneath these that really matter.
It is the reason we wish neighbours we hardly know “Merry Christmas”. It is why we live it up a little at work Christmas parties (if they are on this year). It is why we have family get-togethers around this time. It is why we all think that to let someone have lunch alone on December 25 is a travesty.
And it’s why we particularly grieve the lockdowns and social distancing rules that continue at Christmas. And why it will be particularly painful for those who will be unable to be home with their families around that day.
The Christmas of community goodwill is the Christmas that reminds us we are not complete in ourselves; that we need the community of others to flourish as humans. It will be the Christmas when, even if it will be for only a short time, the weary world rejoices.
There is also another Christmas which is much more contested. It is the Christmas of the nativity of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I say “contested” because this Christmas makes profound, life-changing claims that are not that easily accepted. Even if we happily hear traditional carols in shopping centres and elsewhere, to actually believe what they are saying is another thing altogether: that God took humanity to himself and came among us.
This fourth Christmas takes the claim that we are not complete in ourselves to a whole new level. We are made not only to need each other, but to find our true flourishing in relation with he who is the source of being itself.
The resurrection of Jesus from the dead says that the love God in Christ Jesus will triumph over death. This Christmas says that at its very heart, our life and the world are a gift, given as result of love.
And that we are created so that we may respond and be in relationship with the God who made us, the God who himself is love. And that God has not waited for us to get it right, but has come to us.
I am convinced that, in the end, it will be this Christmas, above all others, that can fulfil the promise “the weary world rejoices”.
Robert Forsyth is the former Anglican Bishop of South Sydney and a Senior Fellow in the Culture, Prosperity, and Civil Society program at the Centre for Independent Studies.