We’re less than one day away from Christmas. Just a few hours away from stopping to celebrate a holiday that, if you look at the headlines saying Christianity is declining, and more and more people are identifying as “nones” when it comes to religious beliefs, it’s a holiday celebrating something we’re not even sure of anymore – maybe we never were. We know that we’re all rushing around shopping and planning and decorating and waiting for that one single day where it will all come together. We feel the anticipation of that day coming and we’re filled with hope. But why?
My brother-in-law loves the holidays. He started playing Christmas music the day after Halloween and it was full on merry and bright at their house long before Thanksgiving. For some reason, I have never really loved Christmas music. A lot of the songs are slow and no one is meeting me under mistletoe and also, who even roasts chestnuts? Don’t those things come pre-roasted at Trader Joe’s? But, this year the words of Christmas carols have really stayed with me. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s because it feels like the world is smoldering with a new outrage every day and our days are screaming by, blurring from one to the next. I mean, how did we get to the end of 2015 already? Fall seems to speed by faster than any other season and then it’s the end of daylight savings time and we’ve begun the slow decent into darkness where 5 PM feels like midnight and it’s so cold we all unconsciously (or consciously) start to hibernate like animals. It’s about now when my self-diagnosed Seasonal Affective Disorder is kicking into high gear so “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful” isn’t really the jam I want to blast on the way home from work.
But I’m listening to Christmas music this year and really dialing in on some of the words and the predominant feeling I have is that we’re not ready. We’re not ready for Christmas this year because we’re scrambling – the world is spinning chaos and there’s always something wrong and if it’s not one thing it’s another. It’s like we’ll all be running into Christmas morning with our hair on fire but then look at it and say, “Oh this? It's nothing,” and pretend that everything is fine for this one day of the year. Like getting in a family fight in the car, full on shouting match, then arriving at the destination and being all smiles and gladness and “How are you?” “I’m fine. I’m great.” That’s what the holiday feels like this year.
A weary world rejoices. We’re weary, that’s certain. We’ve got the weary thing down. We’re running from one thing to the next and if we’re not worried, the news will tell us what to worry about – ISIS and refugees, presidential candidates and a lion in Zimbabwe, shootings and racial unrest. We have a lot we could fill our heads with every single day. We could bite our nails down to the cuticle if we really wallow in all the ways the world is a weary place. But are we rejoicing? Do we even know how or what to rejoice over anymore?
All is calm, all is bright. Bright by the light of mortar fire in Iraq and Syria. Gunfire in Paris and San Bernardino. Bright by the glow of smartphones illuminating our faces as we shove our noses into Twitter and Snapchat. Bright by Instagram ads and TV commercials shouting at us about the next thing we “need”. But does anyone here feel calm? Do we stop running long enough to let the calm settle in or are we sitting in the Christmas Eve church service thinking about the potatoes in the oven and if that last present got wrapped? Who has time for calm when we’ve got bright lights pulling us in every direction?
Let earth receive her King. Oh, we’ve received our king. We have no problem with that. We receive him every day when we wake up in the morning and look in the mirror. The problem is getting everyone else to receive him because no one else seems to see that we’re worthy of worship. In a culture where self and feelings trump others and reason, we keep trying to put ourselves on the throne and the rub comes when no one else realizes how important we are. Rude. So we’re exalting ourselves, our power, our money, only to find the king of self is a heavy-handed ruler.
My soul is thirsty for calm and another kind of bright. I could use some rejoicing and I would very much like to have myself a merry little Christmas. But how do we get there? How do we set down the trials and discontent long enough to let the hope and promise of this holiday seep into our bones?
You can downgrade Christmas to simply Santa and presents. You can even skip the church service, especially if you don’t know why you’re going anyway. But for 2,000 years there has only been one real reason we gather on December 25. Around the world on December 25, people will pause and with a deep-seated hope in their guts, they will know that there’s a bigger meaning than gifts and bingo, trees and tinsel and a blow-up snowman in the front yard.
Last year on Christmas Eve, I attended this time of reflection on the meaning of Christmas. It was a practice of Lectio Divina and while we held restorative yoga poses, in the calm and quiet of a small studio as it snowed outside, we listened to the Christmas story – of a virgin and a baby, donkeys and innkeepers, shepherds and angels.
An angel appeared to Mary and said, “Do not be afraid.” He was about to bestow upon her the greatest task the world has ever known – giving birth to the One who created the entire idea of being born, cradling the One who cradles the very stars. How frightening must that have been? Joseph later heard the same message, “Do not be afraid.” And the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks? “Do not be afraid.”
But I think the message of that day is the same message we need today. In light of every new headline – do not be afraid. In light of each new wave of tragedy – do not be afraid. In light of that family grievance, that task that seems insurmountable, the thing that weighs so heavy on your heart in these very moments – do not be afraid. It’s not a suggestion. He didn’t say, “Good luck” or “You’re right. This is terrifying.”
Do not be afraid.
I think we’re all running a little scared. I know I am sometimes. Scared of what may or may not happen – dreams that may or may not come. Scared of what will happen if ____. Scared of what new thing the world is going to throw at us. Maybe it doesn’t even register in our minds as fear, but that’s one of our most basic driving emotions. That’s why we run around so much and don’t let the calm settle in – we wouldn’t know what to do with it if it came. The calm is awful quiet and the calm lets our minds get much too loud. The calm can drive us crazy.
But the reminder at Christmas is do not be afraid. The hope and anticipation we’re feeling is the promise that comes with do not be afraid. We don’t have to be afraid because One has come and is coming again. The weary world rejoices because we don’t have to be afraid. All is calm and all is bright because we don’t have to be afraid. You know that feeling of relief that comes when you realize you don’t have to be afraid anymore? Maybe you heard a sound in the house at night and it’s the immediate pump of adrenaline as you walk out to find the cause, but when you see it was just your cat knocking something off the counter and you’re not in danger and your fear is quelled – that relief is sweet and comforting, a long exhale. That relief is our hope and our promise.
This morning I was driving through the snow and the song, "Do Not Be Afraid" by J.J. Weeks Band came on the radio. I had never heard it before, and maybe it's just another cheesy Christian song, but I felt like it was a timely reminder of this message that has been on my heart. I want to be ready for Christmas. I want to ease into that day with peace and joy, resting in the good news and celebrating the promise that we don’t have to be afraid. No matter what may or may not happen. No matter if everything turns out exactly opposite of what you wanted. No matter if this is the best or the worst Christmas holiday you’ve ever had, the promise is the same. We don’t have to be afraid because we already have someone who locked this whole thing down thousands of years ago.
"Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people…” Good news of great joy. Do not be afraid.