On Christmas of 1864, the great poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem “Christmas Bells.” In it he laments:
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men
And in despair I bowed my head,
“There is no peace on earth,” I said
“For hate is strong
and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men.”
When I was a kid, my mother loved to bake at Christmas–she spent hours mixing, rolling dough, cutting out crust, decorating cookies. She would often pull a stool up to our kitchen island, and I would sit while she taught me to crack eggs, sift flour, ice cookies. One Christmas, she decided to make salt-dough ornaments for a small tree in our living room. We spent hours making the dough, rolling it out, cutting it into candy canes, tiny stockings, little snow men. The final result was perfect – a beautiful tree covered with red and green Christmas cookies. We were cleaning the kitchen when we heard a crash in the living room. The whole family ran in to find the tree on its side and our overweight lab chowing down on the lovingly made ornaments.
I have so many beautiful Christmas memories. But, in spite of all of the hard work my parents put in, there were also Christmases that weren’t quite so perfect. There were Christmas days where my siblings and I fiercely fought on the car ride to grandma’s house, mornings where I pouted because I got the Molly doll instead of Samantha. Christmases where the beautiful, perfect tree fell over and the dog ate all of the ornaments.
I thought those imperfect Christmases would fade as I grew up. But disappointment sometimes still finds its way in. Christmas can be a time of great joy but also of sadness – full of a grief that seems sharp in relief with all of the things that are supposed to bring us joy. The words of a carol catch in our throat; we open a Christmas birth announcement and look over at a naked spot on the mantle, where a small stocking should be. We unwrap ornaments that remind of us the people we loved who aren’t here to celebrate with us. We read news on our phones of a country deeply divided, of another bombing, or a wildfire that has destroyed a town with little left to lose – things that should never happen, let alone at Christmas.
As Christians, we live in a world stuck between two advents. The already and the not yet. A world where those sacred words-peace on earth, good will to men-sometimes feel more like a question than a promise.
But there is good news. Even in the barren moments.
At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of the divine into human form, an event that forever changed the fabric of the world.
And as people of the second advent, we also celebrate the birth of our own faith; even though we are not yet fully transformed, the “eternal birth” has taken place in our hearts (Meister Eckhart).
This year in particular, I have been thinking about the woman I might have become without this saving faith – a fearful, selfish person, living a small life. And this Christmas season I have felt a little like Scrooge on Christmas morning, celebrating the light of Christ that chases away the “shadows of the things that would have been.” Shadows certainly still live in me. The end of my story has been written but there is still lots of becoming left.
But, even in the midst of the celebrating the joy of the birth of Christ, and the life-giving beginnings of our of own faith, there are still days of sadness and grief, even at Christmas. Days when the “hate is strong” and peace feels very far away.
And Christ respects us enough to tell us that yes, this life is difficult: “In this world you will have trouble.”
But that is not the end of the story.
When Longfellow wrote his poem, the United States was years into the civil war, and he had experienced great tragedy in his personal life. After expressing grief over several stanzas, he ends his poem with these words:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
God is not dead or asleep. There is an end to the darkness. Sadness does not have the last word. For the Christian faith tells us that grief is not an end destination. It is just a stop along the way. Joy comes in the morning.
“There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Rev 21: 4
And in these middle days, we are not alone. “Lo I am with you always.”
In the midst of imperfection, longing, grief, we are able to celebrate Christmas as people of the second advent. People who hear the music, “more loud and deep” and who know that sorrow will one day be replaced with joy.
“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”