It might feel as though Christmas has been snatched from us once again, this second festive season of the pandemic. Through summer 2021 we slowly returned to normal, with restaurants opening again, churches meeting to worship and sing, and colleagues returning to the office. As autumn wore on, Christmas parties were arranged and we met and celebrated with friends and family.
The arrival of Omicron has reversed the trend. Parties have been cancelled, as many people choose to put themselves into isolation and a self-imposed lockdown, and governments debate whether to force one upon us. Last year the deprivation of being unable to see loved ones hurt. But to have these benefits return, and then be taken away once again, is enough to bring us to despair.
How do we find joy in a Covid-blighted Christmas? Taking away the social blessings of the festive season could make us focus on the spiritual. Of course, in this season we think of Jesus coming to Earth, the greatest gift to humankind that God has given us. The warmth and cosiness of our favourite Christmas memories - or the traditional nativity scene - are a reflection of this goodness, the arrival of the saviour. As Zechariah says in Luke 1:78, "because of God's tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us" (NLT).
But what if we feel too sad to feel these spiritual blessings? We can take comfort from the Psalms, which are full of the acknowledgement of sorrow, as well as every other human emotion. To grieve and lament is a very natural – and Biblical – part of life. We do not need to force ourselves into joy.
In the Christmas story, there is plenty of sadness as well as happiness. The mothers of Bethlehem were not forced to celebrate – their cries were heard as their young sons were murdered by Herod. Mary and Joseph, forced to travel for a census and to stay in unfamiliar surroundings for the birth of their first child, were under the threat of this tyrant and had to flee soon afterwards. There are plenty of difficulties in the Christmas story, as well as warmth and goodness.
Time and again, the Bible tells us how God transforms sorrow into joy. "Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning," says the famous verse of Psalm 30:5. And this is demonstrated throughout the Bible. Though Herod tries to kill Jesus, he survives and fulfils his mission. Though Jesus is crucified, he is resurrected. Though the early Christians were murdered, the church survives and grows rapidly. Jesus warns us that the world will be full of sorrow and troubles, but we have the goodness and glory of heaven to look forward to.
To find joy is not to ignore the harder parts of life and to pretend that they are easy, but to hold on and remember that God can and will bring good things again. Though we may be isolated this Christmas, these times will pass. Each day has its share of difficulty, but there are always small blessings – a card from an old friend, a house heated and protected from the cold, fresh and tasty food, people who care about us - we can celebrate the small things that bring joy into our lives, even as there are much greater problems to face.
Human history is full of trouble and strife, but somehow we have battled through. We can choose to face the challenges and learn their lessons, looking forward to a time when God will bring real joy once again. This Christmas, we might feel the disappointment of more restrictions, or the fear of Covid. But we also know we have a lot to be thankful for, and a lot to look forward to. Thank God, this isn't the end.