For many of us here today, this quiet, peaceful morning time may represent the calm before the storm that will start soon—if it hasn’t started already–as we begin the cooking and preparing and wrapping and visiting that has become so much a part of Christmas.
This time of year, our traditions are very important, steeped in love and wishfulness, filled with a sense of missing our loved ones who are no longer here with us, remembering warmly the wonderful things we enjoyed at Christmas as children, as young adults, when our kids were small, when our grandkids arrived. So many memories of happy surprises and big hugs and beaming faces. And maybe, if we were lucky, a quiet snow falling outside and lots of peace and joy within. All those precious memories live on, full of color and emotion and they are ours to keep forever, right here, in our hearts.
It’s understandable that we want a Christmas as good as it can be, full of love and light and beauty and belonging. We want that shining star over our stables too, the love of God pouring into our lives and families and homes. But our hopes and desires for such a wonderful holiday can sometimes get mixed up with feelings of stress and expectation, a kind of inner pressure that weaves anxiety into the mix, worrying us that no matter what we do, someone won’t be happy, something won’t go right, something will get forgotten.
And with worry on board, our Christmas preparations can become a kind of beat-the-clock game, with an ever-growing to-do list and piles of packages and endless preparations. Underneath it all, that kind of pressure can drain away some of the joy of the holiday and even make us say things like, “I’ll be glad when Christmas is over so I can finally relax!”
As I was writing this message yesterday, an article title, “19 Ways to Cut Down on Holiday Stress,” arrived in my inbox. The article listed the biggest holiday stressors as lack of time (67% of survey respondents said that) and lack of money, which 62% of the people said was the biggest source of their stress. The article suggested some simple solutions, like getting outside and relaxing, going to the gym instead of the mall, turning off the TV and cellphone, building quiet time into our schedules, adjusting our expectations, and letting ourselves feel grateful—really feel grateful—for the good things we already have in our lives.
That made me think of Dr. Rick Hanson, the author of Hardwiring Happiness, a book I’ve mentioned to you before. He’s interested in helping people discover what adds contentment to our lives. In one part of the book, he talks about how we’re often in such a hurry to move on to the next thing that we are unable to really “take in” the goodness that is right there with us, perhaps unnoticed. Hanson says we can change that by learning to recognize when we’re experiencing something good and then pausing a moment to really let it register. When we let that good moment sink in—perhaps a peaceful scene, sun shining on the snow—it is more than just noticing something mentally; it involves feeling the goodness, the gift of the moment in our hearts. In response, a little appreciation bubbles up. And if we can linger there for just three or four seconds, Dr. Hanson says, that calm sense of gratitude will grow, ultimately spreading through our daily lives and helping us feel happier.
One of the reasons we get in such a hurry on the way to a Merry Christmas is that we want so much to create the perfect holiday. Our expectations ramp up and we work hard—some of us very hard—to create an experience that lives up to what we’re hoping for. But when we do that, we also forget something very important: It wasn’t into a perfect setting that the Christ child was born. Rather, he came into our messiness, our unreadiness, our chaotic and disordered and hurting world.
In the time Jesus was born, God had seemingly been silent for a long time. The last prophet to directly lead the children of Israel was Malachi, and he had lived 400 years earlier. Malachi had warned the people that their faith was growing cold and their attitudes entitled. In his time, the people often blamed God for the circumstances of their lives and complained that the wicked of their day were prospering.
For the next four centuries, the people depended on the temple priests for teachings and religious observances. They weren’t expecting or counting on a direct word from God anymore. It had been many generations since that had happened, now an ancient memory or maybe a myth. The priests answered to the Sadducees, who were experts in the law and the prophets. They were conservative and affluent, often involved in politics and holding considerable power among the people. The Pharisees, by contrast, were less educated and more open to oral tradition; they also considered theirs to be the “purer” practice of their faith, less influenced by Greek culture than the Sadducees. Both groups had considerable power when Jesus was born and they were most likely happy with things the way they were. They weren’t looking for God to intervene in their system by sending a prophet, or preparing the way–or as unthinkable as it was–coming to live among His children Himself.
But the plan God had for His gift to the world didn’t depend on his children doing everything right. In fact, just the opposite. God knew we needed Light and warmth and radiant truth, and He brought it, personally, right into the middle of our darkness. God’s presence was not a reward for pious, perfect people but an embrace, a hope, a joy for those who had lost their sense of connection with God, who had grown cynical and distrustful, who had filled their need for God with an addiction to power.
Just yesterday, I saved this tweet from Pope Francis—how often do you get to work a Pope’s tweet into a Sunday morning message?—and it speaks to just this idea:
“Jesus is the smile of God,” he wrote. “He came to reveal to us the love and goodness of our heavenly Father. We need God’s smile to strip us of our false certainties, and to bring us back to enjoying simplicity and gratuitousness.”
The first Christmas was far from perfect for Mary and Joseph on that holy night. Mary would certainly have rather been home with her mother and aunts and sisters so they could help and support her through the birth of her first child. Joseph—who was promised but not married to this expectant young woman—no doubt would have preferred he were somewhere where the women who understood this kind of thing could take over and he could sit outside with his friends or relatives and await word that all was well.
It was into that world–that imperfect, messy, disappointing world that fell so short of the ideal—not unlike our own—that the Light of God chose to come, teaching us what it means to live with awakened hearts, to seek and share God’s sweetness, to be calm and bright in our own current, everyday realities.
All is calm, all is bright is a line we know from the much-loved Christmas hymn, Silent Night. It was written in 1816 as a poem by a 24-year-old Austrian Roman Catholic priest named Josef Fransiscus Mohr. Two years later, as Mohr was walking the three kilometers to a nearby town to perform the midnight mass on Christmas Eve, he decided he would ask a friend who lived there to compose music for the poem so they could offer the congregation a new hymn at the Christmas Eve mass. His friend was the church’s choir master, and he wrote the music to Silent Night in just a few hours.
Mohr knew from his own life what it meant to have a less-than-perfect start. His own mother was unmarried, abandoned by his father before his birth. In their small town, the church took a role in helping Mohr with his education and training, giving him opportunities to sing in the choir of the monastery church and eventually, with a special dispensation, to attend seminary.
Perhaps because Mohr understood so well the divinely intimate nature of God’s intervening presence, he was able to capture in words a sense of the peace that comes when God draws near:
Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child!
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Mohr’s first verse focuses closely on the precious first moments in the sacred and perfect realization of the presence of God in our world: All is calm, all is bright—round yon virgin, mother and child.
In the second verse, the camera zooms out and we get a glimpse of how others—in the world and the cosmos—respond to this miracle, which, it’s important to note, is also happening where they are:
Silent night! Holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight!
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Saviour is born!
Christ the Saviour is born!
In the final verse, we understand the profound and life-changing meaning of this miraculous event, so big it reaches across all time and space:
Silent night! holy night!
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth!
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth!
This light, this love, this grace chooses to come and be among us, helping us learn what it means to worship in spirit and in truth from the inside out; to know how it feels to have God present with us, leading, guiding, comforting, and transforming us as we go through the ordinary happenings of our days. The light shines into our own personal darkness, whatever that may be just now. The mess, the bother, the irritation, the distance, the lines, the anxiety, the traffic, the illness, the loneliness, the stress. God’s light shines right into our darkness and whispers that the good news is for all people—for us and for beings everywhere, the whole world over, across time.
No matter how hard we try, no matter how many lists we make, we will never be perfect enough to deserve a gift like that. And that really is the point, I think. Perfection in this realm isn’t a prerequisite for God’s grace. Into this world exactly as it is today—full of struggle and conflict and imperfection–the perfect Light of God is born, over and over and over again. Unto us a child is born, not because we’ve got it right; but because God loves us and knows we need love and light, truth and grace.
In a world that feels broken, the love of the Christ child brings restoration. In a time of despair, the baby brings hope. Hope of joy, hope of peace, the promise that—in God’s realm—all really is calm. All is already bright.
This Christmas, let’s celebrate the fact that the kingdom of God continues to reach into our world, bringing light into the darkness anywhere it’s found. It’s a Christmas story we can witness ourselves as it happens everywhere, every day, if we’ll slow down and look with the eyes of our hearts. Three or four seconds, that’s all it takes. And then the gratitude—our soul’s response to the Light of God’s presence, the real, living spirit of Christmas—will begin to shine and spread, radiating out into the world through us.
Merry Christmas, Friends.