When we say, “It is Christmas,” we mean that God has spoken into the world his last, his deepest, his most beautiful word in the incarnate Word. And this word means: I love you, you, the world and human beings.— Karl Rahner
There are times when sound does nothing but cause pain—the harsh words of disagreement, the disturbing reverberation of gunfire, the abrasive words of political battles, the crying of a baby. This Christmas season for me has been a tender time. I have longed for Christmases past that were more simple and free of worry. I have not heard this year the sound of Christmas bells ringing in this joyful season. Instead, I have needed to find a holy, silent place.
A dear friend captured my emotions in her blog today:
Many of us miss Christmas moments
familiar from other years
and expected for this one.
Many of us miss someone so precious
who was with us and will not be.
Perhaps mourning loss has made me unable to hear all the ”joyful and triumphant” sounds of Christmas. Instead of craving those familiar joyful sounds, I have been drawn to a place of silence. I feel compelled in these days to seek silent spaces and to open my soul to holy whispers. It seems that silence brings peace as nothing else can.
As I have thought through all that I feel, an old hymn came to mind. It seems to capture where my soul is right now. I will listen to it a few times today, as I try to rest in the silence I need, ”Let all the earth keep silence before him.”
I will also turn again to these comforting words in my friend’s blog:
Look around on Christmas Eve
and Christmas Day
for the tip of angel wing prepared for you.
If sounds of Christmas joy feel painful to you this year, I invite you to find the holy silence you need. As you do, listen to this calming hymn.
Most of all, I wish for you ”the tip of angel wing.”
I ran across this painting by Eric Dowdle as I was nursing a bit of holiday doldrums. It’s easy to fall into doldrums while anticipating Christmas. We expect an ”all is calm, all is bright” kind of Christmas, but sometimes that’s not reality at all. Instead, we can’t hear the singing of choirs, the sweet sounds of the organ or the ringing of Christmas bells.
When I look at this art, I see everything we long for as Christmas nears: a bright and beautiful tree with a sparking star on top, Santas everywhere and the people encircling the tree as if to say, ”Right here among us, there is peace on earth among people of good will.” If the painting miraculously had sound, I imagine I would hear the ringing of church bells heralding the magnificent coming of peace on earth.
Yet, we have reality in our sight instead of this joyful painting. Peace among us in these days, even peace within us, seems to be in short supply as division, war, poverty, and racial injustice continues to hold sway on our world. Not insignificant is that our personal relationships seem to be less than peaceful. The place within us where peace ought to be is often in chaos, filled with anxiety or just plain empty. Peace in our hearts and spirits—that sacred sense of serenity and inner calm—simply eludes us.
When my spirit is not at peace, I can barely see peace anywhere, even at Christmas. Such was the story of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who wrote the words of the beloved carol, ”I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Some of the stanzas of Longfellow’s beautiful poem are familiar to us, but other stanzas we have seldom, if ever, heard. Here is the poem in its entirety.
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 thought how, as the day had come, The belfries of all Christendom Had rolled along The unbroken song Of peace on earth, good-will to men! Till ringing, singing on its way, The world revolved from night to day, A voice, a chime, A chant sublime Of peace on earth, good-will to men! Then from each black, accursed mouth The cannon thundered in the South, And with the sound The carols drowned Of peace on earth, good-will to men! It was as if an earthquake rent The hearth-stones of a continent, And made forlorn The households born 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!" 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 all!
I cannot help but look around at what I see and hear on the streets of this city and all over the world and see despair, hatred, division and violence taking over the peace I so need. So as the carol says, ”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!”
As you seek peace this Christmas season, know that God is the giver of a deep peace that abides in our hearts. I invite you to take a few moments out of your day to enjoy these videos. The first is a choral and orchestra performance of the carol. The second is a lovely group of young people singing the hymn with the addition of handbells. The third is a beautiful performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with the narrated story of Longfellow’s writing of the carol.
May the Christmas blessing of peace fill your heart, and may you hear, above all other sounds, the wild and sweet ringing of the bells of Christmas.
We end Advent with Love—that heart emotion that makes its way into our souls and remains there. Love isn’t always easy. Love may well require putting away your self-interest, your tendency to be self-absorbed and your compulsion to hold grudges.
There are much better things to hold than grudges. Like the constant Love you hold for your children and grandchildren. Like the lasting Love of a life partner. Like the deep love you hold for your family. Like the soul-Love you experience when you remember a baby laying in a manger in Bethlehem.
When you remember that baby, with a brilliant star shining over him and angels singing overhead, that is when you know genuine Love. That is the Love of “God With Us.” That is the Love that dwells in us for eternity. That is the Love that helps us Love one another as God has Loved us.
God loves you simply because God has chosen to do so. God loves you when you don’t feel lovely. God loves you when no one else loves you. Others may abandon you, divorce you, and ignore you, but God will love you always. No matter what!
— Max Lucado
Don’t let anyone or anything take that Love from you like the grinch stole Christmas! Don’t let your quarrels and your anger steal that Love from you. Don’t let petty misunderstandings crush the Love that is in you, because that Love became flesh and came to live among us and in us.
Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace,
good will toward all people!
I’m a little short on words this year for Advent’s Sunday of Love.
Love is fragile, you know. Love can turn on a dime.
Or at least love can turn on the turn of a phrase
A difficult conversation
Or a harsh word.
Then you lose it—love, that is
If only for a time
But you look around for it
And love is gone
Replaced with heartbreak
Can’t get it back, either
At least not right away.
Left then with Advent Hope
You hope for a kinder moment
To make its way into your heart.
Left with Advent Peace
You look for other things
That might fill your heart
Left with Advent Joy
You can only mourn its passing.
But Advent Love
Well, you just hold your heart tightly
so that it doesn’t shatter completely
Before Love comes down at Christmas.
God with us!
May the angels of light
glisten for us this day.
May the sparks of God’s beauty
dance in the eyes of those we love.
May the universe
be on fire with Presence for us this day.
May the new sun’s rising
grace us with gratitude.
Let earth’s greenness shine
and its waters breathe with Spirit.
Let heaven’s winds stir the soil of our soul
and fresh awakenings rise within us.
May the mighty angels of light
glisten in all things this day.
May they summon us to reverence,
may they call us to life.
— John Philip Newell
Please enjoy this video.
I learned today that happiness in America is at an all-time low. A recent survey from the University of Chicago found that happiness among Americans has fallen lowere than it has been in five decades. What has caused the public’s happiness to plummet is fairly simple—living in the midst of the coronavirus. And that’s the current status of happiness in America.
But happiness is not joy. We can be happy when we find success, or a have a new relationship, or a win a sweepstakes, or watch our children graduate. Yet, even in a state of happiness, we can be without joy. Happiness is an emotion that brings bursts of intense pleasure, excitement, and satisfaction, while joy is a enduring state of being that results in feelings of inner peace and contentment. Joy does not depend on our good luck or our happy circumstances. Joy lives in our hearts, in the deep recesses of our souls. Happiness comes and goes; joy is abiding and eternal.
Still, joy can seem elusive in troubled times. No one escapes trouble. It is an inevitable part of life and, at times, all of us encounter pain, grief, hardship, sorrow, loneliness. Life brings us joy-destroying circumstances. Even Advent Joy cannot change that. We can light the pink candle in our Advent wreaths over and over again, but the pink joy candle cannot bring us joy. The hope, peace, joy and love that Advent might bring to us does not always reach us.
I ask myself: What is it in me that prevents joy from filling my heart? Why does melancholy replace joy in me so often? How do I find joy?
Often, children teach us by their words and actions. Most of them exude joy. I remember hearing children sing, ”I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.” The song is actually good theology for children. It is also good theology for adults, especially adults that have lost their joy. I don’t have to search for joy after all. It is ”down in my heart” or maybe down deeply in my soul.
Advent joy is not something you have to work for. Instead, it is something that you hold in your soul that stays with you always. Consider this wise thought:
When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.
Or maybe this thought:
I will give thanks to you, O Lord,
for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
and you comforted me.i
Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
Isaiah 12: 1-3 NRSV
In this second week of Advent, I am searching for peace. I feel a little like the prophet Jeremiah who said, ”They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:1)
Indeed, how difficult it is to embody a sense of peace when we look around us only to see yet another school shooting, yet another Covid variant (Omicron), yet another tragic example of police brutality, yet another child abused . . . and more, one after another un-peaceful thing in our world. Yet, one of our lectionary texts for this week seems to promise that peace can be within reach.
Luke 1:78-79 NKJV
But on this day, in the middle of Advent’s week of peace, I wonder how I might find even a bit of God’s promised peace. Peace remains elusive to me as I look around me at a world of chaos, discontent, oppression, unrelenting pandemic, fear, uncertainty and all manner of disturbance. ”I need peace of mind!” the people cry. If I have ears to hear their cry, and my own, I must own the reality that I need peace of mind, too. But I also need peace of the soul. I need deep down peace to make its way to where my emotions live.
Isn’t it true that Advent Peace is about soul transformation—the kind of transformation that stops with the decorating, baking, shopping and all things frenzy? Isn’t it true that instead of Christmas frenzy, all of us yearn for Advent peace?
And so I stop and close my eyes.
I breathe slowly and deeply.
Again. Again. Again.
I breathe deeply and, as I slowly exhale, I feel my heart beating slower.
I feel my arms relaxing
and my muscles releasing the tightness they always hold on to.
I rest in arms of grace and listen for Spirit breeze that calms me.
I contemplate what’s in my heart
and wait silently to hear my soul’s whisper.
Does deep breathing allow the Spirit of Peace to envelop me with her tranquility? Do those few quiet moments take me to that place inside me where all is calm? It seems so, at least for a while. Interspersing my frenzied life with brief moments of contemplation makes all the difference in the world for me. I do sense Advent peace in those moments. Or is it that I reached down deeply enough into my soul and found the peace that was already there? Either way, I still held on to a few moments of peace.
If you and I are able to find that place of peace, we can then pass it on to others who need it and even to the chaotic world around us. During this week of Advent peace, wouldn’t it be wonderful to see dozens of random acts of peace? Whether that’s raking a neighbor’s yard, or taking a meal to a family with a new baby, or doing a home repair for an elderly couple, or sending a card, might we seek out someone who could use a little more peace in their lives?
When we reach out to other souls with random acts of peace, we give human form to the Peace of Christ. Christ clothes us in His humanity. We are His continuing incarnation in the world. These thoughts are described beautifully by Joseph B. Clower in his book, ”The Church in the Thought of Jesus.”
If the indwelling Christ is not confined,
then our eyes flow with His tears,
our hearts are moved with His compassion,
our hands are coarsened with His labor,
our feet are wearied with His walking among all people.
Now, take a slow, deep breath. Let it out. Take another breath. Contemplate the Prince of Peace and how much He wants peace for your life. Breathe deeply. Let it out.
Now keep breathing, and find something peaceful to do today for another person who needs peace as much as you do—a random act of peace. Amen.
I invite you to spend a few moments of contemplation by listening to this video, Dona Nobis Pacem— Grant Us Peace.
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven,
the shepherds said to one another,
“Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened,
which the Lord has told us about.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph,
and the baby, who was lying in the manger.
Luke 2:15-16 NIV
I am searching this Advent season for hope—hope that’s a tiny bit brighter, hope that lifts up my eyes to see more than I have seen before, hope that stirs in my heart, even for a moment. I feel the words of this hymn, ”I come in half-belief.” It’s not the most promising mood to bring to Advent, but it’s all I’ve got. The reasons don’t matter. They are myriad, as perhaps your reasons for hesitatingly approaching Advent.
The truth is that many of us have experienced struggles in the past year. The truth is that our country has seemed unbalanced, troubled, confused. It is also true that suffering has made its way into villages and cities and hamlets all over the world. I feel the strain. It affects my soul and troubles my spirit, so I longing for a gentle sign of hope to make its home in my heart.
My contemplation led me today to the hymn I share with you for your own reflection as we approach Advent’s first Sunday. I hope you will ponder the text and listen to the video of the choral arrangement. I am moved by this hymn every time I hear or sing it. The words invite me to the manger, the place where there is room and welcome always and forever. Even as hope eludes me, the eternal truth still stirs my soul: How could I forget how Love was born, and burned its way into my heart—unasked, unforced, unearned, to die, to live, and not alone for me. For all the world, the Hope of the world!
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 9:6 NIV
Where shepherds lately knelt and kept the angel’s word,
I come in half-belief, a pilgrim strangely stirred;
But there is room and welcome there for me,
But there is room and welcome there for me.
In that unlikely place I find him as they said:
Sweet newborn Babe, how frail! And in a manger bed:
A still, small voice to cry one day for me,
A still, small voice to cry one day for me.
How should I not have known Isaiah would be there,
His prophecies fulfilled? With pounding heart I stare:
A child, a son, the Prince of Peace for me,
A child, a son, the Prince of Peace for me.
Can I, will I forget how Love was born, and burned
It’s way into my heart—unasked, unforced, unearned,
To die, to live, and not alone for me,
To die, to live, and not alone for me?
Dr. Jaroslav Vajda (1919-2008)
“Where Shepherds Lately Knelt” arranged by Craig Courtney | BYU Men’s Chorus
featuring Laurence Lowe, French horn
This is all!