by Jennifer L. Sanborn for The Christian Citizen

“I’m really, really hot,” my 15-year-old son said as he stood over my side of the bed. Our trusty thermometer confirmed a fever. “Get back in bed,” I instructed. “I’ll get the Tylenol and call school.”

It was December 2019 and we had a week plus of Advent and Christmas plans ahead of us—haircuts, special meals, a traditional performance and concert we look forward to each year, and the pinnacle—Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. While one celebration is in a church sanctuary and the other in the sanctuary of our home, both are sacred for our family. It’s our favorite time of year.

Sickness wasn’t in the plans.

A few days later my husband said, “I don’t feel so well,” holding his head. As our son emerged from the fever-ridden haze, my husband entered. I blew up the air mattress in my home office and prepared for a day or two of isolating from one another, not yet realizing I would be sleeping on the floor, camping style, for more than a week.

I strategically counted the hours we would need to be fever-free to make our holiday engagements, then sadly excused us from our commitments, one by one. Christmas Eve was the most disappointing call to make. I had been invited to read the passage from John at Lessons and Carols. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” My disappointment was palpable, and I could feel my inner light growing dim.

Two days before Christmas, as my husband felt worse instead of better, we visited the after-hours emergency service at our physician’s office. The waiting room was filled with aching, miserable patients. Though I had no symptoms, I grabbed a mask for myself as well as my husband and we settled in for a long, uncomfortable wait. “Flu B,” the doctor confirmed 24 hours later. The last of our company was called off, and masks became a fixture in our house.

On Christmas Eve we livestreamed a service from one of the few large congregations who made such offerings available and glumly imagined the warmth of the full sanctuary….the light piercing the darkness as it was passed candle to candle during “Silent Night.”

On Christmas morning we opened gifts with my sister and nephew on Zoom. Our “big gift” for our kids was a trip to Toronto, Ontario to put our newly printed passports to use and finally see the musical “Hamilton.” Our planned departure date? March 18, 2020…. recognizable now as the week much of the United States, Canada, and the world shut down to stop the stealthy spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

Fevers? Masks? Separate quarters, isolated from one another in our own home? No family visitors? Virtual worship? We had no idea that December 2019 was a mere rehearsal for 2020, and that soon each and every one of these aberrations would be the world’s new normal.

Instead of candles, last year’s light came in the form of small miracles. In a house of four, only two became ill. In a time when separation was wise for our well-being, we had the gift of technology to connect us to family elsewhere.  Our “big gift” might not ultimately have delivered the adventure we intended, but when “Hamilton” was released in a film version on Disney Plus this summer, our family popped popcorn, turned up the volume, and welcomed a touch of Christmas in July!

We had food to lovingly prepare and enjoy together. We filled our home with music, the essence of the Christmas season for me. And for some reason during Advent last year I felt compelled to put up not one Christmas tree, but two, with a live tree in our living room and our usual artificial tree lit up and decorated right in the middle of our bedroom. Though the idea was audacious at its inception, in the end it was pure wisdom. My sick husband, largely quarantined to our room, was still able to look at the lights and treasured family ornaments.

We could not have imagined during a week of dissolved plans and changed traditions that we had the capacity for many months of living with similar conditions, but as we approach Christmas in 2020, we already know where to look for the light.

We have renewed appreciation for the gift of meaningful work. Daily, we breathe a prayer of thanksgiving for resources we previously took for granted—groceries, pharmaceuticals, even toilet paper—and we see the too often invisible labors that provide these. Technology is a source of constant connection, and, though each of us in our family hungers for physical presence, we have also embraced “differently embodied” experiences of friendship, work, learning, and worship in this extended season. (We even play bi-coastal, multi-house Yahtzee on Zoom!) We now know the burdensome marks of Christmas a year ago—masks and time apart—are gifts from God and a tangible way to love our neighbors.

Unbeknownst to us, God was preparing us a year ago for a season of birthing that would be—and still is—profoundly difficult. When I read the song of Mary now, in the midst of this pandemic, my longing is not for the return of Christmas past. I believe we are laboring together for a world where the hungry are filled, unjust rulers removed from their thrones, and the humble raised to places of honor. I remember anew that the light we pass is symbolic of the call to radically redistribute God’s resources in the world. We aren’t yet holding that newborn life in our arms, but the midwife has asked us to breathe deeply and feel for when it’s time to push. We are preparing the way.

Jennifer L. Sanborn is program director of In Support of Excellence—American Baptist Home Mission Societies’ financial-literacy program for clergy and lay leaders.

Photo by Bára Buri on Unsplash