This week, the Deseret News asked leaders of five Christian congregations across the nation to share the Christmas messages they hope to convey to their members as Americans celebrate and contemplate the religious holiday at the end of an extraordinary year.

They see parallels between the historical moment of Christ’s birth and our own time. They also say that the lessons of Christmas can be applied to our personal lives and help us grow — both as individuals and, collectively, as a nation.

The interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity. 

The Rev. Curtis Price, First Baptist Church, Salt Lake City, Utah

“We’re not meeting in person for the first time in the history of this church — 130 something years — we’re not having a live candlelit service. We’re grieving that reality,” says the Rev. Price.

Via livestream this year, alone in the sanctuary, he will tell his congregation “about the crisis and struggles we’re facing now … and the crisis and struggles that the Jewish people faced during the Roman occupation of Jewish Palestine (modern-day Israel). Famine was a regular occurrence and the Roman occupation was putting down uprisings. Next to Nazareth” — where Jesus would spend his childhood.

Such was the darkness Jesus was born into, says the Rev. Price, who adds that he has personally grappled with “bouts of anxiety and depression” throughout the pandemic. 

“In the midst of all this mayhem and chaos and crisis and difficulty God quietly intervenes — through a child born in obscurity to a poor family, in the middle of nowhere. (God’s) solution was this quiet little baby who goes on to bring light to the world.”

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Jesus’s birth and his teachings implore us to have “the hope and inspiration and courage and strength, to live out what we don’t see yet but the hope of the future, to live in the just Kingdom of God that Jesus preached about.”  

When Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven, the Rev. Price adds, he wasn’t talking about the afterlife. In line with Jewish tradition, his focus was very much upon “the world we lived in here and now and the way the world would be if God were in charge and not Caesar … that’s absolutely the message: that the Kingdom of God is at hand, the Kingdom of God is here within you.

“What Jesus brings is a message that the world can be different. As we live that out, (his) light grows and shines brighter and ultimately becomes reality.” 

The Rev. Curtis Price poses for a portrait at the First Baptist Church of Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Father Dario Miranda, Saint Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, Maywood, California

In lieu of the traditional Midnight Mass — California is under a nighttime curfew in hopes of tamping down on the surge of COVID-19 cases — Father Dario Miranda will offer an outdoor Christmas Eve service, which will also be livestreamed. His church has been meeting outside since July, he adds.

“My message will be based on the experience of Mary and Joseph who had to travel through challenges as migrants, as people on the move, as people under the Roman Empire being oppressed and exploited.”

Father Miranda, who immigrated to America from Mexico 35 years ago, adds “the experience of the holy family is an experience we can relate to as immigrants.” 

The church is situated on the southeastern edge of Los Angeles in a community that is 96% Latino, one of the groups hardest by COVID-19. As Father Miranda’s congregation has been deeply affected by the pandemic, he says he has struggled with a sense of powerlessness.

Father Miranda says that he has traveled to Bethlehem more times than he can count. One of his favorite places is Shepherd’s field, in the neighboring village of Beit Sahour. There, an angel appeared to the shepherds and announced the birth of baby Jesus — a moment that will play a large part in his Christmas homily.  

“The shepherds — who were the least in the scale of the society — the message of joy and hope was brought to them. They lived in poverty and exploitation and were segregated from much of the population. And it is to them that the angel appeared.” 

The shepherds, Father Miranda reflects, were filled with joy and hope; they took those feelings out into the world. 

“And this is us,” he says, of the Latino community. “Our heart is full of joy and hope and we have the strength to pull through and overcome challenges.” 

President Andy Lustig, stake president for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Boynton Beach, Florida

Reflecting on the year, President Lustig, who had a severe case of COVID-19 that required hospitalization, says it’s been “difficult to lead when you can’t minister in person.” 

He emphasizes that Christmas isn’t about trees or gifts. “I don’t know where we get this whole tree thing from,” President Lustig says, adding, “This holiday is not about gift-giving, it’s not about Santa, it’s about honoring the birth of the savior and being grateful.” 

That aligns with the church’s official message. Speaking earlier this month, church President Russell M. Nelson urged members to “rivet our focus on the Savior and on the gift of what his life really means to each of us.”

President Lustig, who was born and raised Jewish but converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2000, shared the four points he will convey via email to the 10 Latter-day Saint congregations he presides over in a straightforward, no-muss-no-fuss manner, his words tinged with the accent of his New York City birthplace. 

“First, we should be grateful for our living prophet (President Russel M. Nelson). He prepared us for the pandemic before it happened with ‘Come Follow Me’” — the program that has shifted the emphasis toward home worship.  

“Two — I want to remind them that you can rely on the Lord but you have to try your hardest. Do your best and he’ll do the rest.” President Lustig likens a lack of effort to high school students who go into a test unprepared but hoping to do well. We have to do our part, he says, and then hand the rest over to the Lord.  

President Lustig’s third point is short and simple: “They need to have faith, unwavering faith.” 

Lastly: “We’re living in a contentious time with this (presidential) election and the election that will happen in Georgia. Despite the elections, we need to love each other unconditionally. I’ve seen friendships broken over this election — Democrats and Republicans who no longer speak to each other. Put everything aside and love one another unconditionally.” 

The Rev. Cathy Gillard, Park Avenue United Methodist Church, New York City, New York

“What is Christmas, really?” the Rev. Gillard says. “It’s about love and it’s about presence. It’s about God saying, ‘I want to be present with you. I want to be with you.’

“God stepped down in the midst of times that are like these, God came in the midst of the chaos and adversity and the hopelessness,” she says. “What does it mean to say especially this year that there is one who has come amidst this for me and us and the world? How am I paying attention in the midst of the hostility? 

“Let’s don’t miss him amidst the hardness of this time and amid our fragility. Let’s don’t miss him when we’re so weighed down individually.” 

Contemplating how we can be present for God, the Rev. Gillard explains that while it might seem paradoxical, sometimes being present means saying that we’re afraid.  

“Sometimes as believers that’s the hardest thing to admit: fear and anxiety and fragility,” she says. “That feels less than faithful … but it’s OK to not be OK every minute.”  

The Rev. Gillard points out that in the Bible whenever angels presented themselves to humans, their first words were “Do not be afraid.” This is an important part of the story of Christmas, she adds.  

“The first thing the angels did was arrest the fear. There are angels in our midst today but we have to be able to listen and hear them. And once our fears have been arrested, faith is able to help us say, ‘Well why were you really afraid?’”

The Rev. Gillard, who is the first long-term Black pastor in Park Avenue United Methodist Church’s 184-year history and only the second woman to lead the congregation, said that by admitting our deepest fears we can overcome them. And that’s how we can move forward both as individuals and a nation. 

“If we were less afraid, what might our country — what might our world — look like?”

The Rev. John Foster, Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Atlanta, Georgia 

“The angel gives (the shepherds) instructions, the angel tells them, ‘He can be found in a manger in Bethlehem,’” says the Rev. Foster, who will deliver his Christmas Eve sermon via livestream, adding that, “We should all go look for the baby Jesus.” 

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That journey should first take us inward, explains the Rev. Foster. “We should look for the salvation God has in all of us. … We should be seeking our purpose, our true direction — just as the angel told the shepherds to go find Baby Jesus.”

By finding that individual purpose we manifest God’s glory, says the Rev. Foster, who leads the church that was established in 1847, almost two decades before slavery ended and that remains a pillar of the city’s Black community today. “The best we can do in our life is to realize what our true purpose and true meaning is — that’s (my) message. 

“Whether talking about the shepherds, the wise men — any of the characters in the Christmas story — after coming in contact with what God wants us to be, we should be different and be energized,” says the Rev. Foster.

God’s will for us can range from helping people stay afloat during the pandemic to “helping people to vote,” he adds. By using the lesson of the angel’s announcement of Jesus’s birth to empower the self, individuals can go out and empower their communities. 

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