To celebrate Christmas now as well as at the time of Christ’s birth is an act of protest. Every Christmas tree raised, every creche set up, every candle lit on the Advent wreath is an act of protest, a sign of faith against despair – a candle lit that shines forth in the dark of our world. Right after Thanksgiving, some of my family and I went out to a local garden nursery and picked out a lovely five-foot fir tree which was delivered to my house a week later, and has since been heavily decorated – dripping with silvery icicles and multicolored lights and ornaments from Christmas past. A lovely sight to behold!
So we have entered that season of madness and rushing and mailing and whatnot – all the things we traditionally do as we rush about counting the days to the BIG DAY. Among the things that I have done in the past week – besides mailing a ton of family and friends’ gifts – was preaching at St. John’s this past Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent.
I began that sermon by making reference to the sense of foreboding and anxiety that the recent spate of terrorist attacks, both here and abroad, have created in our psyches. I felt I couldn’t get up in the pulpit without acknowledging the world we currently live in and the sense of terror, terror all around us. That evil that seems to surround us and is growing by the day. Early in the sermon, I called upon the poet W. H. Auden to cast some light on our current lives, including the false hopes that politicians raise in order to damp the disquiet among the citizenry. He says:
… and the recent restrictions
Upon aliens and free-thinking Jews are beginning
To have a salutary effect upon public morale.
True, the Western seas are still infested with pirates,
And the rising power of the Barbarian in the North
Is giving some cause for uneasiness; but we are fully
Alive to these dangers; we are rapidly arming; and both
Will be taken care of in due course; then, united
In a sense of common advantage and common right,
Our great Empire shall be secure for a thousand years.
But then, in beautiful poetic form, Auden says what we all know: That this is not true. We know that there is evil in the world – evil without and evil within. Terror as response to that evil – in Jesus’ day and in ours – cannot be hidden beneath the lies of politicians or others.
My dear friend John de Gruchy – the South African theologian and writer – describes that terror at the time of Jesus’ birth. King Herod was threatened by the possibility of unrest stirred up by Jewish zealots and any number of messianic leaders who could rise up and start real trouble. He therefore ordered a census to be taken. So everyone had to register in their hometown. Thus, as we know the story, Mary and Joseph headed to Bethlehem to register, and Jesus was then born – as John puts it – in “a town occupied by foreign troops that would soon massacre all the children born at that time.”
And as Bethlehem was then, so it is now – at least as an occupied and fear-filled place, where pilgrims, who normally flock to its streets at this festival time of year, stay away. As John notes, apparently even many Christians are losing hope. He quotes Fr. Jamal Khader of the Latin Patriarchy, who wrote online this week, “we cannot forget what is going on, that there are people suffering. People are losing hope in a future of peace.”
Along with my friend John, I too wonder if we are losing hope in any possibility of real peace in our world. At church we pray for peace, but in our hearts, do we really believe the words that we pray? Do we really think peace is at all possible when we watch CNN and the other news networks, when we witness on the small screen of TV or computer the atrocities that occur everyday – not just over there or by them, but here and by us?
But John then reminds us how it was at the time of Jesus’ birth – that it was just at that time of brutal occupation that the angels sang their song of peace on earth, good will to all. In fact, it was a protest song. And just so, to celebrate Christmas now as well as at the time of Christ’s birth is an act of protest. Every Christmas tree raised, every creche set up, every candle lit on the Advent wreath is an act of protest, a sign of faith against despair – a candle lit that shines forth in the dark of our world. John affirms that “such ‘hope against hope’ remains at the core of our Christian faith.”
Near the end of Auden’s long prose poem, he speaks through the mouth of Simeon – the old, holy man in the temple who recognizes the Babe for the Messiah who has come. And he says:
But here and now the Word which is implicit in the Beginning and in the End is become immediately explicit, and that which hitherto we could only passively fear as the incomprehensible I Am, henceforth we may actively love with comprehension that THOU ART. Wherefore, having seen Him, not in some prophetic vision of what might be, but with the eyes of our own weakness as to what actually is, we are bold to say that we have seen our salvation. … And because of His visitation, we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking; our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to Him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore at every moment we pray that, following Him, we may depart from our anxiety into His peace.1
And so that is our prayer in this season of unrest and fear. May God fill our hearts with peace as we also protest the evil that stalks us in the world, giving symbol to that spirit with every candle lit, every carol sung, every tree ablaze with colored lights and topped with that star that points our way true north to home.
1 Excerpts from W. H Auden’s “For the Time Being,” taken from his Collected Longer Poems, New York: Random House, 1969, pp. 163, 181, 183-4.