We knew Christmas wouldn't be the same for many of us this year. We guessed there would be no office Christmas do's (small mercies, I hear you say), no visits to the pub with friends, no parties or get togethers; for some people, no company at all.
Indeed, for some it will be the first Christmas without a loved one, or a Christmas blighted by poverty, a lost job or the threat of eviction. And now for many of us, we've been hit with the blow of not seeing any family at all over Christmas.
Family traditions are as much part of Christmas as the national and international conventions that form part of this time of year. For me, it's watching the Father Ted Christmas Special (for the umpteenth time) with my brothers in law, last thing on Christmas Eve; Christmas morning spent exchanging presents with a house full of people; Boxing Day at the football...
Those traditions give us something to look forward to, to place our hope in, but this year they are fading from the horizon. None of us, back in March, imagined that we would still be in the grip of Covid by Christmas. Yet here we are.
Lost hope is gutting. Changing our plans can be bewildering, depressing, devastating. Would it provide you with any comfort if I reminded you that the first Christmas is an account of plans that had to be radically changed? Mary is about 14, and she's pregnant. Joseph knows he's not the father, but his fiancée insists she hasn't committed adultery. In case that bombshell wasn't enough, they find that they have to alter their plans because of a government edict (sound familiar?) and set out on a journey to Bethlehem that will take them more than a week, with Mary expecting to give birth any day. The town is so busy that they find themselves sharing a room with the animals, and this is where the baby is born. Then soon afterwards, they have to flee for their lives with their child and seek asylum in another country.
Joseph and Mary's plans seemed to be overthrown at every turn. But the Bible tells us that actually, all of it was part of a plan. The Old Testament is full of prophecies about a future king who will be born in Bethlehem. He will bring an end to suffering and restore justice to the world.
In a passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah, read aloud in churches at Christmas, we are told to look forward to this Prince of Peace who will establish and uphold his kingdom with justice and truth. Maybe you had to do this reading at school? You are in good company! In Luke's gospel, we discover that Jesus read from Isaiah to the gathered synagogue members. This was the section he read out:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the year of the Lord's favour."
And then, having finished, he said: "Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."
I've read this countless times, but every time I do I feel that I should spit out my coffee and shout 'What?' Here is Jesus saying, "you see this prophecy written 700 years ago about God's chosen ruler? It's all about me. It's just come true in your presence because I am in your presence."
It is an outrageous claim, one that hundreds of millions of people believe to be true – and it is above all, a defiant declaration of hope. Jesus is saying that he is that wise and just ruler, who will one day put all to rights.
More than this, he has compassion on us despite everything we have ever done wrong, everything that might separate us from his love. The Christmas account points us forward thirty-three years later when Jesus took the pain and injustice of humanity on himself. The wooden cross for the baby born in the wooden manger. There is no mystery as to why that baby was born in Bethlehem. Jesus tells us repeatedly that he was born in order to die a special kind of death, a death that would liberate his people from all tragedy, separation, heartbreak and need.
Through his death and resurrection, Jesus forgives us utterly. He wipes the slate clean, and in return he claims our allegiance. We are expected to forgive and love one another in recognition of his gift to us. We are offered meaning and purpose in our lives, and an eternal perspective that reaches beyond the temporary trials of the Covid pandemic, Brexit and even beyond the lifespan of humanity itself.
This year especially, Christmas highlights the tension between what we are experiencing now and the hope that we have been promised. When the glitter and the tinsel are stripped away, we glimpse the story of a baby whose birth fulfilled the promise of a God determined to restore relationship with you. Covid has disturbed our plans for Christmas, and for many completely cancelled our plans. God wants to disturb them too – with the news that will change your plans for good, because you are part of His plan.
Tim Farron is Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale and former leader of the Liberal Democrats.