God is not dead, nor does God sleep

Even two thousand years removed, the image effortlessly captures our imagination.  There is a desperate family, far from home.  There are no friendly faces, few helping hands.  The closest thing to shelter the family has been able to find is a stable behind an inn, a rough-hewn thing suitable only for animals.  We like to envision those animals as doe-eyed Disney cartoons, but in reality they, and the darkness, and the dirt mock this vulnerable family in their most vulnerable moment.  She is young, and she is scared, because the baby is coming.  He is frustrated and panicked, because he cannot figure out how to make things safe and right.  Events have outpaced the couple’s ability to manage them.  Things are happening to them now, and all they can do is allow these things to transpire.

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What an ugly year we’ve just lived:

  • One of the worst years on record for worldwide natural disasters[i], including earthquakes in Taiwan, Burma, New Zealand, and Italy, as well as devastating floods just to the east of us in Louisiana, where thirteen people were killed and thousands lost their homes.
  • Acts of terror is such locations as Nice in the south of France, which intends to be a place of unguarded rest, and, just this week, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Square in Berlin, which exists as a monument to the very futility of violence.
  • An election cycle that brought out the very worst in us.
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Aftermath of the terror attack in Nice, France, July 14, 2016

Perhaps the Nativity story still so captures us because its anxiety, frustration, and panic are emotions with which we can relate.  We’re having trouble figuring out how to make things safe and right.  Events have outpaced our ability to manage them.  Things are happening to us, and we can’t seem to do anything but allow them to transpire.

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is, perhaps, America’s greatest poet.[ii]  He was born in 1807 of solid colonial stock and to means that allowed him to travel the world before adulthood.  He studied languages and taught first at Bowdoin College and then Harvard.  Through his work, Longfellow was celebrated and enjoyed both fame and great monetary reward.  And then in 1861, as happened to all Americans, events outpaced the ability to manage them.  The Civil War erupted from the nation’s cauldron of sectional resentment.  Then, two months after the firing on Fort Sumter, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife and the mother of his six children struck a match that accidentally caught her dress on fire.  Despite Longfellow’s attempts to put out the flames with his own body, his wife died.  His own face was so scarred with burns that he wore a heavy beard for the rest of his life.

Less than two years later, Longfellow’s eldest son, Charles, volunteered to join the Union Army.  Charles was commissioned a Second Lieutenant, and in late November he was shot through the shoulder, with the bullet skimming his spine.  Charles was very nearly paralyzed. Henry Longfellow tended to his son during a long and difficult recuperation.  For the second time in as many years, Longfellow was frustrated and panicked, because he could not figure out how to make things safe and right for those he loved.  Things were happening to them, and all Longfellow could seem to do was allow those things to transpire.

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

And then, on the morning of that December 25, in the midst of his uncertainty and despair, Longfellow heard the sound of Cambridge’s church bells ringing sharply into the air of Christmas Day.  Their peal was clear.  It pierced through the gloom of grief and wound and war to proclaim that something else, some counterbalance, was at work in the world.  Longfellow moved swiftly to his writing desk, and he penned in that moment the beloved poem:

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!

The poem begins with joy, but its power endures one hundred-fifty years later because unlike so many other Christmas poems and songs, it is not syrupy or maudlin.  Longfellow does not use the Nativity as a gauzy screen to mask the difficulties of life.  Almost as soon as he begins, the gloom resettles.  The poem goes on:

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!”

Existentially and emotionally, Henry Longfellow has taken us back to Bethlehem, to the stable, to the moments in the midst of Mary’s labor when so much can go so horribly wrong, just as everything else has gone wrong for her and for Joseph on that day.

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The Nativity, by Caravaggio (1609)

But then, the child emerges.  He is born, and with him something enters the world as clear and true as the Cambridge bells in the morning air.  The baby cries, as babies do.  The heavens open, and the angels sing to the shepherds, who are struggling with their own nightmares.  In this most unassuming of ways, in this common miracle made cosmically uncommon, God enters our world, alive and awake.

Back in Cambridge, the second peal of the bells scatters Longfellow’s desperate haze.  Almost by surprise, hope is born anew in him.  He doesn’t understand it, but he cannot but proclaim it:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: 
“God is not dead; nor doth [God] sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Here, at the end of 2016, a year we would just as soon forget, we don’t understand it.  But here, in the wee hours of this morning, hope is born anew in us.  The peal is clear.  It may appear that events in the world are merely transpiring, but in truth God is not dead, nor does God sleep.  God is born into this world.  Hope lives!  Peace on earth, dear friends, good will to all.  And Merry Christmas.

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[i] http://www.aol.com/article/weather/2016/12/09/the-worst-natural-disasters-of-2016/21623406/

[ii] For more details of the story that follows, see Ace Collins’ Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 2001) and https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/2014/12/21/the-story-of-pain-and-hope-behind-i-heard-the-bells-on-christmas-day/.

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7 O’Clock news

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Exactly fifty years ago in 1966, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel released their third studio album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.  The record was a hit and consists of an eclectic playlist that includes the wistful “Homeward Bound,” the conflicted “Dangling Conversation,” and the light-hearted “Feelin’ Groovy.”  The final track on the album surprised many first-time listeners, because it differs from all the others in both substance and style.  It begins as a traditional Christmas carol:

Silent night, holy night; all is calm, all is bright.  Round yon virgin, mother and child; holy infant so tender and mild…

As soon as it begins, however, the carol is interrupted by background static overlaid on the track, almost as if a second radio station is interfering with the song.  As the song goes on, the background voice becomes louder and more distinct.  It says something about President Lyndon Johnson and the civil rights bill.  Slowly the listener realizes that the voice is a newscaster, and next he says, clearly, “In Los Angeles today, comedian Lenny Bruce died of what was believed to be a narcotics overdose.  Bruce was forty-two years old.”

At that point, as if in rebellion against the bad news, the duet’s voices crescendo:

Sleep in heavenly peace; sleep in heavenly peace.

But the newscaster drones on, ever louder, “Dr. Martin Luther King says he does not intend to cancel plans for an open housing march Sunday into the Chicago suburb of Cicero…The police in Cicero said they would ask that the National Guard be called out if it is held…In Chicago, Richard Speck, accused murderer of nine student nurses, was brought before a grand jury today for indictment.  The nurses were found stabbed and strangled in their Chicago apartment.”

vietnam-protest

And so it goes.  The news gets worse, if you can believe it.  The newscaster reports stories about Vietnam and anti-war protests.  He mentions the conspiratorial theories of Congress’ Un-American Activities Committee.  The tumult of the news attempts to take center stage, but all the while Simon and Garfunkel will not allow the light in their harmony to be snuffed.  They claim the soundwaves:

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.

The newscaster ends by saying, “That’s the 7 o’clock edition of the news.  Goodnight,” as Simon and Garfunkel’s last refrain echoes in the air.

The final track on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, titled “7 O’Clock News” is masterful.  It expertly captures the tension of Advent, which existed fifty years ago in 1966, existed two thousand years ago in Palestine, and still exists today.  We read today the precious story that the Holy Spirit of God conceives with Mary, and an angel of the Lord announces to Joseph that this child will be Emmanuel, God-with-us.  With the angel’s annunciation comes the nascent hope that God’s promises will be fulfilled.  We wait all year for this reading.  We wait all year to kneel and sing Silent Night, which we will do on Saturday next, to rest in the warm and hopeful glow of the Christ Child’s birth.

But we also live in the world.  And our newscasters, this very week, seek to drown out the blessed melody with reports of ongoing violence in Syria, as well as dozens of Coptic Christians—the world’s oldest enduring Christian sect—being blown up along with their ancient cathedral by terrorists in Egypt.  The newscasters tell us of Russians hacking our political system.  They report on the ominous rise of old prejudices and racially motivated hate groups that we had hoped were long gone.  And increasingly, they reveal that some of our news isn’t even news, but rather consists of stories fabricated whole cloth to discredit and sow fear and manipulate people.

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Coptic Cathedral bombing in Cairo, Egypt

Yes, we live in a fearful and uncertain world and a fearful and uncertain time.  The question for us—the pivotal Advent question—is which do we believe has the final say: The Nativity or the newscast?  Which do we believe prevails in the end?

The angel’s first words to Joseph are “Do not be afraid.”  The angel says the same to Mary in Luke’s version of the story.[i]  It is also the repeated refrain of Jesus to the disciples throughout the Gospels whenever the world seems about to overwhelm them.[ii]  Do not be afraid.

But Jesus and the angel don’t offer this encouragement to pretend that everything in these days will work out o.k.  They do not mean that every cancer will be healed, every job preserved, that every politician will earn our trust, every social fracture will mend, or all religious violence will end.  Mary’s heart, after all, was broken along with Jesus’ body on the cross.  The angel’s promise at the annunciation did not prevent her real and deep pain at the crucifixion.

Our encouragement not to fear is, rather, the promise that since that first Advent, since the Incarnation of God on Christmas, we do not walk through this world alone.  Our courage comes not from the illusion of well-being provided by rose colored glasses, but from the sure knowledge that even if we walk through fire in this world, God is with us.  Emmanuel.  No matter the 7 o’clock newscast, no matter the static it overlays on our days, no matter how loud its bad news, the sacred melody always also plays.  It will not be drowned out.  God is with us.

nativity-icon

And there is more, even than that.  Advent is not only about looking backward to the Nativity.  It is also about looking forward to Christ’s return, to that day on the far side of the newscast, beyond the worst the world can throw at God’s children, when God will finally say, “Enough!” and the one who begins as the babe in the manger will reign in love over all things.  After the newscast forever ends, the carol’s final refrain will go on, not as an echo, but as the world’s only truth.  That is Advent hope.  That is what we are to anticipate with expectancy.  Believe it, friends, and do not be afraid.

[i] Luke 1:30

[ii] Cf. Mark 4:40, Mark 5:36, John 14:27, etc.