(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, December 19, 2020)
It’s been a year of sadness. Not to bum you out. I’m just saying. And a year of vulnerability.
Vulnerable. This was the man outside my house. His name is Victor. He’d walked across the city for some hours, pushing a cart of bottles collected along the way for money. He wore a grey hat and the sort of coat that will somehow get him through winter.
I saw him while walking the dog. I invited him in and we talked. I was struck by his humility of spirit, a gentle acceptance of life as it is. Victor, a vulnerable traveler of sorts who didn’t pretend to be anything else. It was a moment.
Not long after, online, I listened to a Texan artist, Scott Erickson, talk about Sadness, the character from the movie Inside Out. Visiting Disneyland, Scott had observed a couple of people with another Inside Out character, Joy. But for Sadness – likely some young girl working for minimum wage inside that character costume – they lined up five rows deep.
There’s the severely disabled boy in a wheelchair holding her hand. The middle-aged woman hugging Sadness for a long moment. Some teens. Now Scott thanks Sadness. Not because sadness comes to mess anyone up, but because it invites us into a deeper human experience. It grounds us. Centers us. “I was so grateful,” Scott explained. “The only way to describe the moment is that it felt holy.”
A vulnerable visitor to my home. Sadness working silently. They’re a couple of my own notes in the cacophony of a year that’s been both full of noise and impregnated with clarity.
Worldwide, COVID has now taken 1.6 million people. More than 300,000 are our American neighbours. In Canada, by Christmas Day, it’s expected nearly 15,000 will have succumbed. Some without even a touch or last good-bye. Maybe you know this loss personally. Or you’ve lost work. Or a relationship. Maybe you’ve lost your security. Or your false security, anyway.
Yes, if 2020 has said anything, it’s that as humans we’re all vulnerable. Now the holidays, a word derived from holy days. Now the year’s darkest days, literally. Now pandemic isolation.
Into this comes the God of Christmas, the mysterious one who appears in unexpected times and places. This is it. Once you’ve seen him, you never know how or where you’ll see him next. Or how far he might go, how low he might descend, to be with you. Hell doesn’t seem too far.
Consider that first Christmas in ancient Palestine, a broken place in constant fear of its Roman oppressors. Now this strange birth, a king apparently born in the backwater of Bethlehem to an impoverished and scorned family. The day’s political ruler sought to kill the child, Jesus. Then again, his closest birth companions, some smelly animals, could have accidentally stepped on him.
A king of vulnerability if there ever was one. A king of some different kingdom. A king also well-acquainted with grief and sadness. Later, at his death, he’d be given a crown of thorns to show this. Then, as many millions believe, Christ’s descent to free those in hell, before his visible resurrection, validation that there is peace and goodwill extended to humanity. This is the joy of Christmas.
“In him was life and that life was the light of humankind. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it,” is how the ancient apostle John put it.
This is the heart of it. The Christmas narrative lends itself best to darkness. Look past the season’s schmaltz and goofy sentimentality, and this is what you’re left with: a God of mystery, of surprise, who not only identifies with the sort of sadness and vulnerability that’s marked and marred our 2020, but one who weaves himself into our daily affairs and concerns.
Pay attention. This is what it all really seems to say. Pay attention to the portals. The windows. The unexpected. The humour. Yes, pay attention to things hidden in plain view because this is the nature of life. Certainly pay attention to your own life and the mystery that it holds.
The year 2020 is almost gone. I mean, if ever there was a year to pay attention.
18 thoughts on “On 2020, the God of Christmas, and paying attention”
What a lovely piece! It reads almost like poetry. Your message really touched my heart and I wish you and your family a joyous occasion during this time of uncertainty.
And joy to you, Chris!
Love this Thom! Perfect for this hard year and I’ve posted it to my FB. Thanks and Merry Christmas to you all! xxx
Thanks for keeping in touch, Chris and Marny. Always appreciate readers who move things along. Bless you during the holiday season.
Thomas, you have wonderful way of connecting the divine with the human. Blessings to you and your family during this Christmas season and in 2021.
And to you, Peter. May you and yours know joy during these days.
Thanks so much Thom – so blessed by your piece, the vulnerability and yet power of our Life-Leader – Jesus – God with us! Big virtual hugs to you, Jean and the kids – will be so great to see you again! I have hope!!
Hey, Thom, a great word!
The other day, seemingly prompted by the seasons (COVID & Christmas), I found myself turning the Scriptures for another perspective, another encouragement: Seek first the God of the Kingdom – there I will find the Kingdom of God.
Blessings on all those you love.
I love it. The God of the Kingdom. Thanks Michael.
And we have hope too. Surely we will see each other in 2021. Thank you, Rose.
Another great piece. A perfect gift for my birthday on 25th December. Most importantly a reminder to pay to attention to the things hidden in plain view.
God bless you Thom and Merry Christmas
I always smile when your posts pop into my inbox, Thom. Thanks for letting us into your mind and heart on a regular basis. One of the big losses of this past year for me was our planned April trip to Grand Rapids and the Festival of Faith & Writing. The Festival itself and the opportunity to share some days together were hard to surrender. Hopefully it can happen in 2022. Keep poking us with your words, my friend.
2022, for sure, Steve. Let’s move heaven and earth if need be to make it happen.
How cool is it to have Christmas as your birthday and also be named Emmanuel?
Merry Christmas to you and yours!! Thanks for your words, impactful and made me think! I pray each of you find a little joy in your everyday.
Dear Thomas, I have followed your writing for many years now, since my son brought home a copy of “Where have all the Mothers Gone?” from work one day. Your writing never fails to impress. There are clear lessons for each of us during this pandemic. Thanks for reflecting on the King of vulnerability and pointing us all towards hope.
So true. Finding joy in the commonplace and everyday. Thanks for the well wishes, Kari.
And let’s carry that hope into 2021. Thanks for the note, Janet.