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Christmas 2020 - Transformed by Joy

Transformed by Joy
The Okello Family 
Betsy, Zack, Beatrice, and Fredrick

As we suspect is the case for many families during this time, our kitchen table has transformed into much more than a place where we gather to eat. Our table has become a desk for my daughter Beatrice to do her e-learning, a table for my husband Zack to plan his music lessons and grade his students’ work, and an office for me to have Zoom calls, grade, and write. At dinnertime, our table is often cluttered with the debris from the day – computers, papers, books, bills, and stacks of paper – and the needs of children waiting to be fed often mean that we eat in the living room, in shifts, or standing with a baby in one arm and some food in the other. No matter how much we pile on top of the table, it remains sturdy as the heaviest piece of furniture in our home. Our family, sustained by our time around this table, is just as sturdy and able to withstand the piles of stress that accumulate. 

We have also sat around this table as a family to have difficult conversations. We have expressed our fears about our health and safety during the pandemic, prayed before dinner for friends and family who have been sick, and answered challenging questions from our daughter about whether she “is a Black American or a white American,” why people protest, and why she has to wait until she is 18 to vote. We cherish this time together to share the food we have prepared and to reconnect with each other.

As a family we have also been reading the Gospel and practicing our own form of lectio divina - taking turns to read and share the lines that touched our hearts. In preparation for Christmas, we read the accounts of the birth of Jesus from John and Luke. The lines that most spoke to us come from each of these Gospel accounts. From the Gospel of John, “What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” From the Gospel of Luke, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.” We would like to share some of our family’s reflections on the light and joy of the story of the birth of Christ.

Mary and Joseph find themselves in a place they did not expect or plan for when they envisioned the birth of their son. They had traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be enrolled, and when the time came for Jesus to be born, they could find no room in any inn. Jesus is born in a manger surrounded by his parents and stable animals. Just as when we welcomed our own son, Fredrick, this past January, we are fairly sure that once Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph were completely unconcerned, and maybe even unaware, of their surroundings in a humble manger. Their hearts were overcome with joy as they cradled their newborn Son. In the quiet of that night, their small family was enveloped in a private joy that would soon be shared with the world. The Gospels use the word “joy” rather than happiness to capture this overwhelming, all-encompassing emotion parents experience when their children are born.

As David Brooks notes, joy is distinct from happiness. “Joy tends to involve some transcendence of self. It’s when the skin barrier between you and some other person or entity fades away and you feel fused together. Joy is present when mother and baby are gazing adoringly into each other’s eyes, when a hiker is overwhelmed by beauty in the woods and feels at one with nature, when a gaggle of friends are dancing deliriously in unison...we can help create happiness, but we are seized by joy. We are pleased by happiness but we are transformed by joy.” It is this transformational joy that we experience at Christmas as we open our hearts to the infant Jesus and to each other. Just as the Holy Family was, we are fused together in this joy, in spite of distance and challenges.

Like Mary and Joseph, many of us are spending this Christmas in places we didn’t expect – quarantined in our own homes, gathered with just our immediate family rather than the larger, extended family gatherings we have grown accustomed to. Many of us have decorated our homes earlier than ever this year, longing for that Christmas spirit of joy and light. When Jesus was born, light entered the world and shone in the darkness. We can imagine that simple stable bathed in light – a light strong enough to set our hearts and the world on fire. Let us take comfort in the knowledge that this light cannot be overcome by the darkness of disease, isolation, and racism. And so this Christmas, let us turn our homes, spaces, tables, wherever we find ourselves, into that first manger bathed in light and bursting with joy. Let us not be concerned that our surroundings are too simple or our company too small. Let that joy and light overcome us, transform us, sustain us in hope “for a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” It is this joy and light that our family wishes for you and yours this Christmas.