Christmas is a time of hope

Published 9:20 am Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas is nearly upon us. As usual, I’m fighting back the urge to panic. As a United Methodist pastor, my days are packed with things that must be done by Christmas — preparing for extra services, answering an increase in calls for emergency assistance and attending a round of Christmas parties held by both my church and the church where my husband serves as a minister.

I have learned a few coping skills over the years. My first year in ministry, I foolishly agreed to let my children be a part of three Christmas programs — two in the two country churches I served and one in my husband’s church. It seemed all we did that year was haul children from place to place for rehearsals. It was a good lesson for discerning what is truly important in the weeks and days leading up to Christmas.

Like many denominations, United Methodists call the four weeks before Christmas the season of Advent. It is a time of hope and preparation. Essentially, Advent means “it is coming.” Something amazing is about to happen and Christians are reminded in this season to get ready, not for an exchange of gifts but for the coming of Christ.

Too many times over the past two months my thoughts have gotten caught up only in the bad news associated with the prospect of a post-paper mill Franklin. It is a relief to be caught up in the good news finally, for the news is very good indeed.

About 2,000 years ago, the news came to Mary, an ordinary young woman from a backwater town in an out-of-the-way province. The good news was brought by the angel Gabriel, a messenger of God. As angels always do, Gabriel told Mary, “Do not be afraid.” When the angel comes, Mary is at first perplexed by this astounding message, but then she responds to the news with courage and faith.

It is three days before Christmas and my Christmas cards are not in the mail and my Christmas presents are not wrapped. Yet, I feel ready for Christmas in the most essential way. Christmas is about hope, and I am ready to meet the good news first brought by the Angel Gabriel. He brought a word of hope in a dark time. The recipient of his message, Mary, also sang a song of hope:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me.”

Great things have also been done for us as well, if we can only take time to look and listen. While I was the youth pastor at Teaneck United Methodist Church in New Jersey, my family took part in a drive-through nativity. It was like nothing I have seen before or since. It took place in front of the church where an open-sided structure containing bales of hay and a manger had been placed. As music blared, Mary and Joseph entered the scene. Mary was played by a girl whose parents had been converted to Christianity by missionaries in India, and Joseph was a senior in high school who came to the states from Jamaica. Baby Jesus, a doll swaddled in blankets, was placed in the manager. Then, a group of shepherds arrived carrying their cardboard sheep. My family was among the shepherds, and our group ranged in size from tiny to tall. When the magi arrived, one was actually a teenage prince from Ghana. My youth group occasionally reminded Dennis that while being a prince excused him from doing dishes at home; it did not work that way in youth group.

Angels arrived in white robes and halos. Every one of them was radiant, even though some belonged to families that had fled war-torn Sierra Leone in Africa only months before.

We shivered in the cold, but we knew the reason we were gathered there among the wooden, painted cutouts of ox and donkey. We had come to gaze upon the child that changed the world. It really didn’t matter that it was a doll in the manager, because to tell the truth the reason that all of us from so many different parts of the world, from so many different cultures, had come together, began with the birth of Christ. The love that bound us together as a church was the proof that the babe in the manger would change the world. In our lives and in our worship we had come in contact with God’s son and been transformed not just this night but for many others. In our midst was hope.

God dares us to hope that people throughout the world can be united in peace. It is the message that the child in the manager came to preach, and it should give us all hope. A simple peasant girl from a small town becomes the one who bears God into the world. It was good news in dark times 2,000 years ago in a province that had been conquered and re-conquered, and it is good news today.

This Christmas may you also encounter the living God through the Christ child, who is the hope of the world. May peace reign in your hearts not just at Christmastime but throughout the year.