The Feast of the Nativity of our Lord
Well, we’ve been here before, haven’t we.
Remember last year’s Christmas, Christmas 2020, the first Christmas of the pandemic? There were so many holiday lights up in apartment windows starting in, I think, October, or maybe September; so many people at home in their pajamas streaming ‘Elf’ and ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ because they couldn’t travel to family and friends; so many cookies baked and consumed in our elastic waist Zoom pants. ‘Cozy’ was trending last year, or ‘hygge’ if you were going for the Scandinavian version of it. (And there were so many cocktails consumed. Not everything we do in pursuit of happiness is wholesome and good for us.) But we all hunkered down, believing that if we did so for that one year, we’d all come to a happy ending in just a few months.
This year, we all hoped we were more back to normal – less hygge and more actual hugs from people, holiday dresses at parties instead of pajamas at home, travel and concerts and theater and…then came Omicron. Which has either sent you scurrying back home with rapid test kits, or heedlessly saying, Oh screw it, and heading off to the airport anyway, depending on your health and/or personality. No happy ending. No ending of any kind, actually. Just exhaustion and a lot of mad. Am I feeling you?
We’ve been here before, haven’t we.
There’s a story that every few years arises again in my mind – so you may have heard me tell it already and if so, I apologize – just adding to the ‘Groundhog Day’ quality to life these days. It’s an old Swedish folktale that was written into story by a writer named Selma Lagerlof at the beginning of the 20th century, The Legend of the Christmas Rose. It tells of a miraculous Christmas Eve blooming of spring in the bleak winter forest, a vision that only a family of outlaws and outcasts get to see every year. An old abbot from a neighboring monastery hears of it, and begs the outlaws to allow him to come and see the vision for himself. They grudgingly agree, and he promises in return to try to seek pardon for them – the archbishop tells the abbot that if he can bring back a flower from this midwinter vision, he will pardon the robbers and allow them to move back into the village.
So the abbot goes into the forest, accompanied by a protective lay brother from his monastery. And there they hear a bell ring, and then in waves, light and warmth and green growth and flowering blossoms transform the dead woods. Animals come and bear their young, and birds sing. Finally they can hear the angels singing, coming closer to them. But when the vision is at its peak, the lay brother, overcome by suspicion, shouts out that it is all of the devil, not of God – and the vision disappears, the heavenly beings and the light fleeing, the writer says, ‘in unspeakable terror for the darkness and cold in a human heart.’ Shocked by the loss, the old abbot dies, but not before he grabs hold of some flower bulbs, which the brother later plants in the monastery garden. They bloom again the next Christmas, and the outlaws are pardoned and restored to their life in the village – but never again does the forest come into bloom, never again do the angels sing for mortals.
I heard this story several years ago and it has lingered with me ever since. It’s a beautiful story, but it’s also an unsettling one somehow. It doesn’t quite unfold the way I want it to. The outlaws are desperate, nasty people, and even though they experience the heavenly vision year after year and are pardoned at the end of the story, they don’t ever seem to become much nicer. The old abbot finds joy beyond measure in the vision and yet has his happiness snatched away right as he reaches out to grasp it. The brother acts out of fear and love for his abbot, and yet his curse destroys the miracle forevermore. Everyone in the story experiences this amazing grace of the garden blooming – and yet there’s no happy ending. Lives are not made perfect and whole, and the beauty never comes again in its fullness – except that the Christmas rose, the hellebore, continues to bloom in deepest winter. Not much of a holiday story to tell on a dark, unsettled Christmas Eve.
On Christmas, we really, really, want a happy ending. Not just on Christmas, actually. We Americans in particular are famous for this admittedly childish desire. We want the bad guy out of power and the good guy to save the day. We want the plague to end and happy times as we knew them to return. We want the special Christmas donation to end hunger forever, the heart-to-heart conversation to fix the relationship once and for all, the treatment to work and the cancer to disappear completely. It irks us, it angers us, it wears us down when we apply the solution and the problem remains stubbornly in place. We tend to want to throw out the product or the person who promised the fix when it doesn’t work – we want to throw out the savior with the bathwater.
Which is why our Christmas celebration can start feeling a little false – we load it with a lot of emotional freight. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, gosh darn it! Be happy! We can forget that the Christmas story itself, the story of Jesus’ birth, is a dark, unsettling tale. All is not made perfect with the birth of the Christ child. The shepherds and the magi come to see and then they leave and we never hear whether they become better people afterward. Herod the king wants to kill the baby, Joseph and Mary must flee to Egypt, other children are murdered in the slaughter of the innocents. If, as fables say, the creatures of the earth really did pause in peace and harmony to see the Savior’s birth, they went back to hunting and being hunted soon after. And the baby grows up to be a man who is tortured and crucified on a cross. Good Friday hangs around the edges of the story of the Incarnation.
So no wonder that two thousand years later, we can’t say that everything is perfectly resolved. Division and hatred, sickness and death, hunger and need continue on. If it feels like we’ve been here before, well, we have. This is usually how it is, everywhere, always. Suffering is a constant. Christmas has never come at a time when all the world was perfectly well and at peace. Christmas has never made it so. It always comes in bleak midwinter, and the winter tends to get bleaker after Christmas is done. No matter how many songs we sing about angels.
In the Swedish folktale, when the lay brother cries out his distrust of the vision of flowers and light, the angels draw back, fleeing ‘in unspeakable terror for the darkness and cold in a human heart,’ and never come again. But that’s not how it happens in the stories of scripture. There are a number of stories of angels in the Bible, a number of times they appear to bring a message to mortal human beings. But in the Bible, the angels do not flee in terror from human beings, even when every time they come they are met with fear and disbelief. They keep showing up to tell people not to be afraid. Not because everything is perfect and ok, or about to be made so. But simply because that is their message: do not be afraid. When people protest that they aren’t capable of the job they’re being asked to do, when people profess doubt that what they’re hearing is even possible, when people laugh derisively at the ludicrousness of the message, the angels hold their ground. They point to the promise that was made ages ago, they point to the reality of God with us here today, they point to the hope of God’s redemption and restoration at the end of all things. And they point to us, weak human beings, as the chosen beloved of God’s desire. The angels sing glory to God in the highest because that is what they are all about, that’s what they’re created to do, that’s what living in God’s presence draws forth from them. They shine light even when the night is dark, because they know that the light is stronger than the darkness. Angels embody persistent hope. They are our messengers because they live in the presence that melts and warms all of our darkness and cold. They are the reminder that the springtime blooming is there for every one of us to see, and it is never snatched away.
Yes, my dear friends, it is Christmas, and we are worried, and afraid, and tired, and mad. And yet it is Christmas. It is the story told once more that reminds us that in darkness and cold, God’s light shines still – that in the unresolved pain and messiness of our lives, God is here – that deeper than our fears, beyond our doubts, within our struggles, God’s Spirit is at work. Telling us not to be afraid. Showing us the beauty of the garden in bloom. Sending us to carry that message of persistent hope to those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, guiding our feet into the way of peace. May we find our rest and hope in that light, that shines always. And may we be heralds of that good news for this time, this joy to this world. Merry Christmas.