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Jack Bentz, S.J.December 18, 2020
Safely separated by a storefront window, a person dressed as Santa speaks via telephone to greet 4-year-old Kinsley Hayslette in Martinsburg, W.Va., Dec. 11, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Kevin Lamarque, Reuters)

According to the American Red Cross, an easy way to maintain safe social distance is to imagine two large dogs standing nose-to-tail between you and the other person. If you don’t have a couple of large dogs willing to line up, six feet is also about the height of a white rhino or a refrigerator. Any one of these between you and another person will help to keep infection from spreading. Although, if a rhino is between you and another person, you both have more immediate problems. But, in most cases, if you keep your distance, you help stop the spread of Covid-19, the virus that has robbed us of so much and so many over the past year.

But if you are anything like me, you are tired of keeping your distance. Tired of the mask, tired of hands covered with germ-killing goo and tired of waking up afraid again. It has been a long, slow slog and finally, with vaccines making it to essential workers and vulnerable populations, there is an end in sight. But, as any distance runner will tell you, mile 23 is the hardest one of the whole marathon.

God does not wait to draw near until things get better but chooses now and now and now again.

Advent, whether we like it or not, is our built-in season for waiting in the Catholic Church. As the year across North America dims and the nights become longer and colder, we are asked to wait in the cold and to notice the darkness. Not to run from it or scramble to turn on our own weak lights, but to wait. And to notice that in this darkness, God is called by his sweetest name—Emmanuel, God with us. Right here and right now. God does not wait to draw near until things get better but chooses now and now and now again. He is always near us when we feel so far away.

This Christmas is going to be remembered as the one we did not spend with our families. We are not going to tenderly hold new babies close. We will not see fragile grandparents one last time. Family traditions will be skipped, stories will go untold, and many mothers will not be hugged this year. These are some of the unadorned facts of this particular holiday season. Going forward we will carry screenshots of our grannies and tiny cousins flapping hands hopefully at the video device as we leave the Zoom meeting known as Christmas 2020. It is certainly not the Christmas we wanted.

The fact is that many of us now live far from the ones we love. We moved for jobs, adventure or better weather. Maybe not such a good idea, when you think about it, but we did so because travel was possible. Such is the reality we have chosen to construct. This year has revealed the limitations of that way of living. Just when we need them the most, our loved ones are literally out of reach. And as our economy reels and more of us lose jobs and see our old dreams disappear, we will start to reassess how and where we live with each other. The pandemic creates a darkness, but there is an opening there for us. God will help us be present to unforeseen possibilities.

This year we can identify with everyone in the first Christmas story. With the possible exception of the animals, all the familiar characters are away from home.

This year we can identify with everyone in the first Christmas story. With the possible exception of the animals, all the familiar characters are away from home. The shepherds, the original essential workers, are not with their families. Joseph, Mary and Jesus are sheltering in a place, but not their place. Even the angels are working late. And yet, they are all in the story together.

For us it is a story of drawing close to strangers, becoming family to the people we can reach. Social distance is not the end of the story but just the beginning of a new one. If you cannot be with your loved ones this Christmas, can you reach out to the people near to you? They too are beloved, if not by you yet, then certainly by God and their own families.

One last thought: However we measure social distance, this is the time to think about distance in a deeper sense. Yes, distance is the space between objects or people. And today, we maintain that sort of distance for everyone’s safety. But distance is also defined as the full length of the race: to go the distance. We as a society can go that distance together. We will be able to complete the race, the full length of this pandemic marathon. At mile 23, we take a deep breath through that mask, look toward a sliver of dawn on the horizon and move with Emmanuel, with the God who is with us.

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