What makes this night
different from all others?
Our faces lit before the fire,
we repeat the old stories
and count the constellations.
Or we sit
in the habit of silence
like someone long married.
Until the angel appears
with its stab of glory
and we are sore afraid.
We hear his shouted greeting
at once so jocular and familiar
and yet so strange and unearthly.
We hear too
the beating of many wings
like the sound of many waters
and the bleating of the frightened sheep
who scatter in alarm.
But we cannot
because we are struck
dumb with wonder.
Now that Advent has arrived, I suppose it is time for my annual Christmas lament. I am reluctant to speak. I am afraid of adding another shrill note to the year’s collective shriek. Everybody, it seems to me, is up in arms. Every word is an affront. It is tempting to blame our national mood on the election, but I believe its roots go deeper. If the outcome of the election had been different, I do not think that the tone would have changed. It would only have meant that different voices would be singing the same parts. We are all outraged now.
Outrage, of course, is often appropriate. It was the chord struck by the biblical prophets. An ancient aphorism often attributed to St. Augustine says that hope has two daughters: anger at the way things are and courage to see that they do not remain the same. Without a doubt there is much in the world that deserves outrage. But I am struck by how little modern outrage is able to accomplish. For all its heat and fury, it has not proven to be an especially powerful engine for driving change. Perhaps this is because we are really enamored of a different set of twins. Proverbs 30:15 declares, “The leech has two daughters. ‘Give! Give!’ they cry.” The cry of our age is not the cry of love or even of justice. It is the cry of “measureless ambition,” a voice which says “me first” and “I’m here now.”
I cannot help being struck by the difference in Jesus’ tone. It was predicted by the prophet Isaiah who declared, “He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets” (Isaiah 42:2). Despite the shout of joy that Heaven uttered at His birth, Jesus came into the world in relative obscurity and deliberately refused the limelight. When they tried to make Him a king by force, He opted for the path of solitude and suffering instead (John 6:15). This was not because He shunned royal office. Jesus knew it was His by right. Rather, He took this route because He knew that the only way to put things right was to take the wrong upon Himself. The beauty of Christmas is not the romance of a babe in a manger but the mystery that poet Richard Crashaw celebrates when he speaks of “eternity shut in a span.” It is the astonishing fact that God became flesh and lived among us in order to take our sin upon Himself, working justice by His own death and resurrection.
I realize how foolish such measures will seem to those who are focused on tales of power. Yet it is God’s own self-admitted folly, designed for those who would rather exclude Him from their world than make room for His definition of justice. As for me, I will kneel in silence with Richard Crashaw and wonder at the sight:
To thee, meek Majesty! soft King
Of simple graces and sweet loves,
Each of us his lamb will bring,
Each his pair of silver doves;
Till burnt at last in fire of thy fair eyes,
Ourselves become our own best sacrifice.
Now that Christmas has come and gone, I have a confession to make. I am happy to see its back. Christmas is one of those guests who look better from a distance than then they do close up. The holiday is resplendent in its approach, drawing near in garments that speak of transcendence. But upon closer inspection they prove to be threadbare and garish. More gaudy than gaudia. Christmas is a high maintenance guest with an extravagant diet. It takes over the whole house, declaiming like the duke and dauphin in The Royal Nonesuch.
Don’t get me wrong. There are moments of transcendence. But they come at awkward moments during the holiday and in unexpected situations. They are more likely to occur when Christmas drops its guard. They show up in the grace notes more often than they do in the melody line. They are more liable to happen in the car than in church. The glory manifests itself the silence of familiar companionship more than in the buzzy conversation of celebration.
I confess that I am relieved when Christmas finally departs. I watch it trundle off with all its packages and my anxiety subsides. But I suppose I should not blame the holiday for the stress. The fault is my own. I am the one who is distracted. The expectations are mine. I am the one who thinks that one magical day can wipe away my disappointments and reset the years. Now that it is past, I can lower my expectations. Everything can go back to normal.
At least for a while. In a few days we will have another visitor. It is that insufferable brat New Year Year’s Day, which will announce its arrival with fire crackers and dissipation. But at least New Year’s Day is less demanding than Christmas and departs more quickly. In a matter of hours I will have forgotten all about it. And begin counting the days until Advent approaches once more.
A popular song calls Christmas the most “wonderful” time of the year. But some pastors might be tempted to use a different word to describe the season. Christmas is to churches what Black Friday is to retailers. It is the busiest time of the year, when attendance reaches its peak. Church’s Christmas services are viewed as the most important of the year. Pastors feel pressured to exceed last year’s numbers and to tell the familiar story in a way that is bigger and better.
Unfortunately, this often leaves us feeling exhausted, depressed, and cynical. Attendance may reach a high point at Christmas, but when January comes it dips again. The visitors who showed up at Christmas will not reappear until next December. The heady excitement generated by families coming together at church is mixed with a dash of melancholy for many pastors who serve at a distance from their own extended family. Consequently, we go about our business grumbling like Scrooge, reciting Paul’s warning in Galatians 4:10 about observing special days, and reminding people that Christmas wasn’t actually celebrated by the church until the fourth century. Humbug!
Perhaps this is a good time to remind ourselves of Jesus’ affectionate reproof to Martha in Luke 10:42: “Only one thing is needed!” The wonder is not in the day or in the season but in the birth that they commemorate. We do not need another extravaganza. We do not need to tell the old story in a new way. There is enough wonder in the story of Christ’s first advent to last for eternity. Perhaps we have grown jaded because we have co-opted the story for our own purposes and turned it into a marketing tool. We have allowed our voice (and our interests) to drown out the song of the angels. This Christmas, do not be afraid to say it simply and to say it again: “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).
Once upon a time there was a young girl who lived in a small village. She was poor but virtuous. One day, shortly before her marriage was to take place, she was startled by an unexpected visitor. “Do not be afraid,” the visitor said. “I have good news for you. You are going to have a child. He will be a great king.”
Sound familiar? This could be the beginning of any number of stories. But it is the beginning of one particular story. None of the Gospels opens by saying, “Once upon a time….” Yet when we read them, we get the feeling that they might have. The mysteries and wonders they describe are the sort one reads about in fairy tales. A peasant girl gives birth to a miraculous child. A star appears in the heavens and announces his birth. Magi travel from a distant land to pay homage to him. The hero descends to the realm of the dead and returns.
This is the stuff of myth and fantasy, except the Bible does not call it by either of those names. The Bible does not even call it a story. Not really. According to the Scriptures it is truth. It is “good news.” The Gospels do not spin tales, they bear witness. Yet the Gospels’ embodied and historical nature does not negate the mythical quality of the real events they describe.
In an essay entitled “Myth Became Fact,” C. S. Lewis described myth as “the isthmus which connects the peninsular world of thought with the vast continent we really belong to.” Myth in this sense not a fanciful story although, as Lewis observed in An Experiment in Criticism, myth always deals with the fantastic. It is an account which connects our experience with a realm of truth that would otherwise be out of our reach.
But the historical events the Gospel’s describe go beyond myth. “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact” Lewis explains. “The Old Myth of the dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.” In the fantastic but true account of Christ’s birth we meet the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. Although He is “not far from each one of us,” without the Gospel record of these events He would be forever beyond our reach. No wonder the ancient church sang:
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand.
King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.
Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.
At His feet the six winged seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Lord Most High!
Thanks be to God.
We were taken
when the light broke.
Blinded and afraid
and the poor
into the hollow.
“Do not be afraid”
the angel said.
But we could
not help it
and we could not
follow the flock
that had forsaken us.
So we just stood by
in white light
and trembled hearing
the angel trumpet
his good tidings.
And then we too
like scattering sheep
fled among the hills
Until we came to
the place where
the Child lay.
Mary went down
on a donkey.
Great with Child,
she did not feel
like the queen
in their courses
like drunken sailors,
shown a little
And all of us
a long road
longing to hear
the morning stars
shout for joy.