Christmas has been something of a mixed bag this year, especially if you’ve paid the least bit of attention to the news. No doubt there have been some bright spots in our own little worlds, but over it all has hung something of a dark cloud. It bothered me, for instance, that for the first time in 1,900 years there were some Christian communities in Syria that did not celebrate Christmas. The threat of expanded conflict in the Middle East depresses me as well, though at least there is a perverse consolation in the knowledge that the area doesn’t have a monopoly on war. To all that add the random terror in places like Paris. That’s given birth to an anxiety that will take some getting used to.
The chaos around the world made even more striking the announcement of the birth of Jesus, which we chant from The Roman Martyrology. At Saint John’s we sing that at morning prayer on Christmas day, and it’s something I look forward to year after year. Actually, we don’t sing it, because a single cantor intones it, as if he were the town crier reading off the big news of the day. The passage nests the birth of Jesus in human history, and it notes the number of years that had passed since the creation of the world, the flood, the exodus from Egypt, and the founding of the city of Rome. Then the text notes one oddity as it builds to the announcement of the birth of Jesus. Solemnly it declares that Jesus was born “when the whole world was at peace.”
These are striking words, because peace has never enjoyed long stretches of popularity in human history. We pray for it, we work for it, and we even fight for it. Still, the times of peace are few and far between, which is perhaps why The Roman Martyrology took pains to mention it.
If joy is an overriding theme in the Christmas liturgies, then hope runs a close second. Naturally we hope and pray that peace will settle over the earth and that justice will prevail. We pray as well for a variety of other gifts that seem equally unlikely, and by the time it’s all over we might be tempted to wonder if anything substantive ever comes from Christmas — other than the exchange of gifts, of course.
Given the state of international affairs and the difficulties that confront people across the world, is it at all realistic to have hope at Christmas? Is there any reason to hope that things will ever get better? Is hope an illusion, and should we resign ourselves to the likelihood that things are just going to get worse?
It’s easy to conclude that the world is going over the cliff, and that there’s little or nothing that you and I can do about it. But were we to do so, we’d miss entirely the true message of Christmas.
Despite the apparent mess, there’s much to be hopeful for, and we need only start with the bare fact of the birth of Jesus in a stable. By anybody’s standards he had zero chance to have an impact on the world; but of course he did. Second, he sent the Holy Spirit to stir among us, and ever since then people have risen to the occasion to perform astonishing acts of generosity and self-sacrifice. That sort of thing still goes on, though it’s easy to overlook it. Third, God gave life to you and me, and I’m absolutely convinced that we were not created for the sole purpose of whining that there’s nothing we can do to make the world a better place. And lastly, God gifts us regularly with the creation of new people who come to lift a hand just when we’re ready to give up. With great energy, these people sustain our hope, just when we are ready to cash in the chips.
That’s part of why we hope at Christmas. In the dead of winter, when spring seems to be a distant impossibility, we celebrate the birth of one who broke the chains of death and the grip of depression, and he continues to give us good reason to hope.
At the first Christmas God sent his only-begotten son. That son Jesus continues to see in us possibilities that we don’t always see in ourselves, and he enlists us in the work of restoring the world to its lost innocence. Even better, the Lord continues to call to our side others who join in the work of renewing our corner of the world. For all that — and for more — we give thanks at Christmas. Because of all that, the Lord gives us plenty of reasons to hope at Christmas.
+On December 22nd I presided at the Abbey Eucharist.
+Our celebration of Christmas was especially nice at Saint John’s. The music at the Christmas Eve Mass was over-the-top great, and a large congregation filled the main portion of the church and spilled up into the balcony.
We were also blessed to have a white Christmas, though that was due to a residue of snow that had survived several days of warm weather. However, on the day after Christmas we got a bountiful snowfall, which pictures in today’s post illustrate. It was the perfect way to celebrate the feast of St. Stephen; and it recalled good King Wenceslaus, who went out on the feast of Stephen to see the snow, deep and crisp and even.
Finally, we monks celebrate Christmas with a simple yet festive meal on Christmas Eve, during which we light the tree in the refectory. The next day our main meal is at noon, after which many take the opportunity to visit relatives and friends. For me the highlight of both meals were the Brussels sprouts, which are at the top of the food chain as far as I am concerned.