This may be the Christmas that the fewest people in years cross over the river and go through the woods to grandma’s house.
The coronavirus has made this the oddest of Christmas seasons most have ever experienced as we rely on Zoom and FaceTime to see our loved ones. With those who who don’t have the capability to communicate over the internet, phone calls, letters and Christmas cards have to suffice.
The Rev. Mike Murray said those separations can try relationships and cast a pall over the holiday spirit when families won’t gather because of the risk of spreading the sometimes deadly virus to older and otherwise medically vulnerable relatives. But as we are compelled to distances ourselves from family and friends we can move closer to Jesus, the very reason we celebrate Christmas, Murray said.
“It’s at times like this, we find where our faith lies,’’ he said. “It’s time to realize where our hope is.”
Almost universally, people have written off 2020 as the worst year of their lives while wistfully recalling 2019 when times were good. At the same time, they look forward to 2021.
“Sickness, death, financial difficulties put our faith to the test,’’ he said.
People who found no need to pray are now asking God for deliverance as they wait for better times to come, Murray said.
Some are compelled to distance themselves from their family and friends at best and to totally isolate at worst. Many have lost their jobs and face the prospects of a Christmas without the means to celebrate with gifts.
Murray sees it from both sides. As pastor of Christian Renewal on St. Simons, he has seen the cost social distancing has imposed on family and other relationships. As an accountant, he knows how many have suffered financially
We don’t see these difficult times as preparing us for the rest of our lives nor are we eager to accept the Apostle Paul’s teaching that suffering through trials makes us stronger and that good comes from the worst of circumstances.
“I told someone years ago, ‘This will make you stronger.’ They teared up and said, ‘I don’t want to be stronger,’’’ Murray said.
“We feel alone. God has left us. He doesn’t care,’’ we tell ourselves, when, actually, the opposite is true, he said. “Our faith is in God, no matter the situation. Even if we don’t know whether our loved one is going to live 24 hours.”
God never promised that life would be free of trouble — and these are the most troubling times most have experienced — but He assured us there was no need to worry.
“He told us there would be troubles, but to be of good cheer,’’ Murray said. “This could be the best year of our life because we’ve learned to trust in God.”
Before he went up into heaven, Jesus told his disciples he was sending a comforter in the Holy Spirit, and that comforter is with us still, Murray said.
Even in the midst of bad news that saddles believers with dread, they can find ways to be happy and grateful to God, he said.
“You can still be thankful and have a heart of gratitude for all the things He’s given us,’’ Murray said.
One of the things God has given us is the wisdom to avoid situations that could result in contracting COVID-19, he said. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has said that the government can’t restrict the free practice of religion, Murray said that doesn’t mean we should become reckless in practicing our faith even at Christmas when we are accustomed in gathering to celebrate.
Like many other churches, Christian Renewal is not holding its special Christmas service nor its churchwide Christmas party with food, gifts and song. The church will continue its Sunday morning worship with provisions for safety. Murray said he enters the church door with a mask and takes it off only to preach.
There is no doubt this Christmas will be unlike any other anyone in his congregation or family has experienced, and it would be useless to pretend otherwise.
“Even a 4-year-old knows that things are different,’’ he said.
His family is coming home. That includes a son and daughter, their spouses and four grandchildren ranging from 7 years old to 9 months old.
They will read the real Christmas story and talk about the events leading up to Jesus’ birth in a manger and the result of his having lived. They will each talk about the things they are thankful for, Murray said.
“It’s good to hear people say the things they are thankful for, but it’s good to hear yourself say it,’’ he said.
And everyone in the family who can will pray. In praying, we draw closer to God and that will sustain us past Christmas, through the coronavirus and whatever else comes, he said.
“It can be a memorable time. Those things can stay with you the rest of your life,’’ he said.
He will be thankful that his family is with him, but even if they weren’t he would thank God for them, Murray said. Even at a distance, family is the richest of blessings and giving thanks for them and praying for them can give great comfort, Murray said.
And new joyful, Christmas traditions can arise in the midst of a very bad time, Murray said.