The heart of Christmas is family. Each of us can recount precious memories, traditions such decorating the house, setting up the tree, cookie recipes handed down for generations, gift-giving, carol singing to just name a few. What traditions are beloved in your family? Our family get-togethers, well-loved activities are all rooted with the telling of the story of the first Christmas family. The Scriptures tell us about a young couple, Mary and Joseph, who are expecting their first child. As the birth approaches, Mary and Joseph discover they have to leave their home, their family and friends, to go to Bethlehem, 90 miles away, where they must register to pay taxes. The all-familiar tale reminds us there was no room for them in the inns. They were already filled up with travelers. Finally, an inn-keeper took pity on their circumstances and so they found shelter in a stable. There Jesus was born, not with extended family nearby, no grandparents, no aunties and uncles and cousins to help out, just the animals as companions.
This sacred story takes on special meaning for us is this difficult time of COVID-19 pandemic. For the first time in many of our lifetimes, we too, like Mary and Joseph, find ourselves separated from family and friends. Travel plans have been cancelled. Parties have been nixed, replaced by meetings on Zoom. Room is limited to the very closest to us in our homes. No pictures with Santa this year. Quarantining and social distancing have resulted in families sending kisses through the window and leaving presents on the doorsteps. Tomorrow morning, we will miss emptying stockings with family, to see who got the lump of coal handed down the years (A Smith family tradition in my home that can’t seem to die out). No Christmas dinner with distant relatives at the extended table, the chatter of stories told as presents are unwrapped, hugs exchanged, and smiles warm our hearts.
This year will be different. We can appreciate very deeply Mary and Joseph’s dilemma celebrating their first Christmas. It was just the two of them, with the newborn Jesus. That is how the first Christmas began. Despite being far from home, the love of Joseph and Mary did not diminish. The baby still came, despite the harsh circumstances they faced. No breaks, no short cuts for the Son of God. Yet despite the difficulties they faced, their joy grew as they cared for, carried, protected Jesus. Somehow, they made it work. Love was strong enough to adapt to these adverse circumstances. So, it is true for us. Love will see us through, in the darkest of nights, the hardest of days.
Listen to this story of love manifesting in the humblest of circumstances. There once was a little boy new to an orphanage with Christmas drawing near. From the other children, he heard tales of a wondrous tree that would appear in the hall on Christmas Eve and of the scores of candles that would light its branches. Instead of the orphanage's regular fare of gruel, they would be served fragrant stew and crusty, hot bread that special night. Last, and best of all, the little boy learned, each of them would receive a holiday treat. He would join the line of children to get his very own orange. An orange?
An orange! Of his very own? Yes, the others assured him. There would be one apiece. The boy closed his eyes against the wonder of it all. A tree. Candles. A filling meal. And an orange of his very own. Christmas Eve was all the children had been promised. The piney scent of fir competed with the aroma of lamb stew and homey yeast bread. The boy watched in amazement as each child in turn eagerly claimed an orange and politely said "thank you." The line moved quickly, and he found himself in front of the towering tree and the equally imposing headmaster.
I’m sorry young man, I’m sorry. But the count was in before you arrived. It seems there are no more oranges. Next year. Yes, next year you will receive an orange."
Brokenhearted, the orphan raced up the stairs empty-handed to bury both his face and his tears beneath his pillow. The boy felt a gentle tap on his back. He tried to still his sobs. The tap became more insistent until, at last, he pulled his head from under the pillow.
He smelled it before he saw it. A cloth napkin rested on the mattress. Tucked inside was a peeled orange, tangy sweet. It was made of segments saved from the others. A slice gifted from each child. Together they added up to make one whole, complete fruit. An orange of his very own.
We have been orphaned in so many ways this year. Traditions turned upside down. Yet in the most difficult of circumstances we have each other, and each of us can donate a slice of love, to bring the gift of love to someone to whom an orange is the world. We can still love in simple ways. COVID19 hasn’t taken that away from us.
May the example of Mary and Joseph, the example of those orphaned boys, the magnificent gift of an orange inspire us now and into 2021. Because that’s what it means to be family. Merry Christmas and a healthy, safe New Year to all!