'Hope has arrived' this Christmas season

With an oversized crown adorning his sandy hair and donning resplendent kingly garb, 7-year-old Sean marched down a long side aisle. He tightly gripped a thick wooden stick affixed with a large camel head prop.

As the organ bellowed the opening Christmas hymn, the voices of grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and even cousins of the cast members filled the cavernous sanctuary.

Sean had a severe heart condition and was small for his age, but he proudly followed the other two kings, longtime Sunday school friends. However, when he reached the end of the aisle, gravity and architecture derailed Sean’s regal moment.

Needing both hands to hold his prop, Sean could not adjust the crown, now covering his eyes. He needed to turn right, but the camel head was jammed into the corner. With the remaining retinue of youngsters dressed as sheep and cows pushing Sean from behind, the second half of the opening procession of the 1998 parish Christmas pageant halted abruptly.

Like everything else in 2020, Christmas eve church services across our area will be decidedly different. Many will be aired online, but the celebrations will be muted.

Families will not fill churches to the rafters, and no grand Christmas pageants will happen. Neighbors, co-workers, friends, and family are sick, and too many are dying. The elderly are shut-in. Business closures and lockdowns loom. COVID-19’s fingers have spread everywhere. Many people are afraid. So, we may feel like little Sean, who was stuck, pressed upon, and blinded. Can’t this year be over already?

But more than any year in recent memory, 2020 represents the Bible story of Jesus’ birth, Christianity’s central figure. Because of a Roman emperor’s census order, his parents Mary and Joseph are far from home.

An overcrowded inn forced Mary to deliver Jesus in a manger, a fancy word for a trough in a stable. Soon, shepherds—a first-century social outcast group—visit the mother and child. Despite angelic pronouncements, Jesus’ parents must have wonder what perils lay ahead. The Christian story starts with isolation, social-distancing, and unseen dangers. Sounds familiar, right?

The Christmas account is not without hope, however. The shepherds told the parents of the angel’s announcement. Three wisemen from the Arabian Peninsula arrive with news of divine providence. An angel then appeared to Joseph in a dream, stating that he and his family will find safety in Egypt.

With guidance from several adults, Sean and his merry band of animals made it out of the corner, and the pageant went on.

The recent approval and arrival of vaccines for healthcare workers and those most vulnerable give me hope that our lives will go on. Of course, we will best endure the COVID-19 pandemic’s latest wave by continuing to faithfully wear our facemasks, adhere to good social distancing, and wash our hands.

Nevertheless, hope has arrived just in time for this 2020 Christmas season.

The Rev. Robert D. Flanagan of Bridgewater is the author of “Courage to Thrive: Finding Joy and Hope in the Midst of Mental Health Struggles.”