Can a cynical, weary nation that has endured the death of more than 319,000 loved ones, nine months of pandemic isolation and stress, and four years of "my party, right or wrong" polarization find meaning in the winter holidays?
It says here that the answer is yes — if we look for the ordinary miracles around us, pointing the way to a better future like a lodestar in the distance.
Here in the cold darkness of 2020, where a culture of death and despair has infected too much of our country, there’s a glimmer of hope. If we can just focus on what’s most important, and recognize the everyday ordinary miracles around us are working in our favor, things will get better.
It starts with this holiday.
Regardless of your faith, even if that means no faith at all, the Nativity story is one of the most approachable and enduring in the Christian tradition. It resonates beyond the church walls because the themes are universal — family, hope, perseverance in the face of adversity, and the presence of ordinary, everyday miracles in our midst.
You know the story: Mary and Joseph are making a mandatory visit to Joseph’s ancestral home town of Bethlehem for the census, thanks to Rome’s military occupation of Judea. They’re also expecting parents, facing an age-old stigma — she's pregnant, and they're not married.
But as desperate as things seem, the couple is undaunted. They have reasons and resolve to see this through, even though it means a long journey and less than luxurious accommodations.
And yet, amid all these long odds, an ordinary miracle happens: A baby is born. And people who see the value and wonder in the seemingly ordinary — some nearby shepherds and some astrology-savvy visitors — pay homage.
Here we are, 2,000-odd years later, facing our own challenges. As of this writing, 111 Vermonters have died from the pandemic. They are among more than 319,000 Americans who have lost their lives, many due to a criminally negligent lack of presidential leadership. The inequality in our economy has been exposed by this crisis. Our national unity is in tatters. We have stared into the mirror as a country, and seen that we need to shape up.
We’re all dealing with economic uncertainty, too. Those of us with jobs and enough income to buy presents this season are wary about spending money. Those of us without jobs are worrying about whether we can afford food or the roofs over our heads.
And just when we’re exhausted, demoralized, and divided by this crisis, the very things that would lift our spirits — quality time with family and close friends, and community events that bolster our spirits — have been pulled away by necessity. The Elf Express never left the station. The Dorset and Manchester tractor parades stayed in the barn. We know it’s for the common good and the protection of our schools, our businesses and our most vulnerable community members, but it still hurts.
It would be easy, amid all this misery, to feel like there’s nothing left to celebrate. Bah! Humbug!
But a funny thing happens when everything but the truly essential is stripped away: We realize what really matters.
What matters is our health. Our families and friends. The affirmation and joy we get when we help each other. So we nurture those things and build anew.
When all seems lost, we realize there are things we can be thankful for. Our state has lost 111 friends and loved ones, but by comparison, so many more states are enduring far worse death and disruption. The actions taken by Vermont’s leaders, who based their policies on science and data instead of slavish devotion to a vulgar, bigoted fool, have saved lives. In a not-so-ordinary miracle, vaccines are here. Slowly but surely, we’re going to beat this thing.
And not for nothing, we did find a way to brighten these long nights and dampen the sting of isolation.
The Vermont Rail System loaded down a train with holiday lights and sent it from town to town, spreading cheer up and down the tracks. First Congregational Church found ways to get its musicians together safely and provide a holiday service and music for GNAT viewers. Taconic Music is performing for audiences online. The kids at Manchester Elementary Middle School lit up Memorial Avenue with glimmering messages of hope.
And on and on and on it goes, one little ordinary miracle after another. One candle alone flickers in the darkness, but it lights others, and soon we are bathed in the glow.
It all reminds us of what Martin Luther King Jr. tried to tell us in 1963. He said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Maybe, just maybe, the light that leads us out of this darkness in 2021 will help us finally understand what King was trying to say.