Sunday, December 1, 2013

It's Christmas. So what?

As I returned from a fairly quiet Thanksgiving trip, I started thinking about all that had to happen in the next few weeks at work, home, etc. Laura Jane interrupted my thought by switching the radio station to one that will play Christmas music from now through December 25th. I didn't think much of it until I began to reflect on the songs, the season, and what it really is that people hope for, but rarely see at this time of year.

For many, Christmas is a time that they imagine will be spent with family, happily around a table, a fire place, or Christmas tree. But as we all know, that is usually only a dream.

The reality is that we are often forced to spend time with people we aren't very fond of, spend money on things that are really never appreciated, and generally look back at the Christmas season with a "Phew! We made it through it! Now we have another 11 months before we have to endure it" attitude. Yet, every November, many of us begin, again, to hope for a peaceful, relaxing, memorable time spent with family; a time where we reflect on the goodness of God; a time where we can look back on the highlights of the year and make plans for a new beginning for the next year. For a lot of us, this is followed by "This year, it'll be different. This year we planned everything out right. This year we have the Christmas shopping completed BEFORE Black Friday. This year we are going to spend more time giving to those around us and less time worrying about everything else. This year..."

Even our culture, the Christmas decorations, the stories, movies, songs, they all point us to times of good cheer. People try to smile more. Non-profits, especially food and toy banks, see huge influxes of gifts. We try. But for what? What is underneath the desire to give? What is underneath the desire to see people smile? Why do we focus on this time of year as a time of peace? What is it about Christmas that makes us try harder to be nice to each other? Why do more people attend church at this time of year? Why?

Over the next few weeks, I am going to delve into some thoughts of my own regarding Christmas. I will try and incorporate some stories from my past that shaped why I believe that this is one of the two greatest times of the year. And, I want to look into some of the words of the Christmas carols we sing, to dissect them a bit. My hope is that some of you will engage in a dialogue and share your thoughts. But mostly, my desire is to bring a little peace to all of us, to renew our hope, and spur change towards greater things.

So what? Matt, what made you think this was a task worth undertaking? Well, I'ma gonna tell ya.

Sunday morning I decided to turn on some Christmas music. The first song was "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" as arranged by Mercy Me. Most of us know the song. We probably sang it in Sunday School or, perhaps, at a school Christmas musical. It originated as a poem by Edmund Sears in 1849 (thanks Wikipedia!). There are 5-stanzas. You probably know pieces of a few of them, especially the first one.

"It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old, from angels bending near the earth, to touch their harps of gold: 'Peace on the earth, goodwill to men, from heaven's all-gracious King.' The world in solemn stillness lay, to hear the angels sing."

Some of you may ask, "what is the author referencing?" Midnight? Where? Do angels really have harps?

I can answer the first 3 questions, but not the last. Sorry. The author is referencing the story of Christ's birth from the book of Luke chapter 2. This is the story of the angels showing up en masse in a field outside the town of Bethlehem and breaking the news to one of the lowest class of people in ancient Judea (Israel), a group of shepherds. It was a message of hope and change. It was a message of comfort. For those shepherds, the news was that a baby had been born who would be the Christ the Lord, the Savior of the world. The angel stated that the news was "good news of great joy that will be for all the people!" A savior had been born! To those Judean shepherds who were being ruled indirectly by the iron fist of Rome and the more direct, and even tougher fist of the Roman puppet Herod, this news probably elicited a feeling similar to what you and I might imagine we'd feel if we won the lottery. Great joy! A huge weight off our shoulders! But also a sense of uncertainty. This Messiah had been prophesied about but never seemed to show up. But then again, news like this hadn't been brought to a group of nobodies like these shepherds by a host of singing angels before either.

Luke continues the story. A host of angels appeared praising God and saying "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests."

What was that? Peace? There it is. That little word that we all wish to see, but probably have no idea how to describe. Peace. It's the word that pageant contestants invoke when asked what they wish to see. Peace. It's the word scrawled across placards at demonstrations and marches and parades. It brings with it a sense of quiet and calm. It brings with it a sense of stillness - "the world in solemn stillness lay". There is a sense of everything being under control.

Sit back in your chair late in the evening after everyone else is in bed with the lights off, close your eyes, and listen. If you're like me, you really can't find a truly quiet place in your house. As I write, everyone is in bed or settled down around me. Yet, the whir of the computer fan and the sound of branches rustling outside still break the silence. Even though it is peaceful inside, the weather is ramping up for a storm. To truly remember what I think of as peaceful, I have to go back a number of years to a time spent backpacking with my wife up on Mt. Hood. This was pre-kids, and even pre-pets. We had hiked to Elk Meadows on the east side of Mount Hood and set up camp. We watched the sun set over Mt. Hood with a few other backpackers in the area, then retired to our camp. As I put the food bag up in a tree away from our tent, I stopped and just listened. The clear night sky had begun to light up with pinpoint starlights. Contrails from jets mixed with the sparse clouds. Trees creaked a little bit in the ever present breezes on the mountain. But other than that, all was still. No traffic. No worries of the world to deal with. No news to read about. Nothing. Just me, my wife, and creation. It was peaceful.

But is that peace?

The poet continues.

"Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long; beneath the angel-strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong; And man, at war with man, hears not the love-song which they bring; O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.

"And ye, beneath life's crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow, look now! for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing. O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing!"

These two stanzas described the world in 1849...and in 2013. The world is filled with strife and war. For those of us not directly involved in strife and war, life's crushing load has most likely touched us, if not right now, then in the very recent past. What does the poet say tends to happen at that time? We don't hear the angels' message. When the worries of the world are keeping us down, it is tough to hear anything, let alone a message of peace, a chorus of hope. The poet shouts "Hush! Rest. Hear." Angels are singing! They are singing a message of hope. All will not remain as it is! There is someone coming who will change all of that!

Yeah, yeah. So what? We hear that in songs and stories, from pastors, and priests every year. And what do we typically do? Well, many of us muddle through each day until it's all of a sudden Thanksgiving, and our minds turn to the fact that Christmas is coming, the dream just might happen this year (a peaceful time with friends and family) and a new year and new chapter is just around the corner. Then we sleep walk through the entire season and move on to the next year as if nothing big happened.

If nothing happened, then why do we celebrate every year? Why do we hope a little more at this time of year? Why do we try a little harder at this time of year? Why do we even care?

I believe that deep down inside of us a part of us believes the message of the angels. A part of us wants to believe and respond to their message that peace is coming. The angel said that the Savior was there, had been born that day 2000-plus years ago. To me, this is a message of hope. It's a promise kept, a love-story to which we cannot truly fathom unless we jump in feet first and experience it.

On that apparently clear midnight in a field near Bethlehem, a host of angels exclaimed that a new hope had sprung eternal and peace would soon come. Over the next few weeks, I hope to unwrap that message of hope and peace. It's a message that began back at the beginning of time and continues today. It's a message that states that regardless of where you and I are in life or how we think we've messed up, you and I are special and loved. We are loved so much that the One that created us paid the ultimate price so that we could always experience His love. And, someday, He will make all things right and fill the earth with peace. A true peace. A peace that surpasses all understanding. A peace that is unlike anything you and I can imagine.

As the poet concluded, "hush the noise...and hear the angels sing" for they sing of a day "when peace shall over all the earth, its ancient splendor fling. And the whole world give back the song, which now the angels sing."

I don't know about you, but that is something I hope for.

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