We experienced this kind of peace on Christmas Eve, in a day muffled with a long, slow snow:
It sifts from leaden sieves
It powders all the wood.
It fills with alabaster wool
The wrinkles of the road.
…It reaches to the fence,
It wraps it, rail by rail
Till it is lost in fleeces;
It flings a crystal veil
On stump and stack and stern,
The summer’s empty room,
Acres of seams where harvests were,
Recordless, but for them,
It ruffles wrists of posts,
As ankles of a queen,
Then stills its artisans like ghosts
Denying they have been.
We don’t have acres of seams where harvests were, but we do have wide tree-lined streets and rows of Tudor Revivals, Colonial Revivals, Foursquares, and Bungalows, all creamily frosted and most sparkling with little constellations of lights. J and I bundled our little people up and we each pulled a sled right down the middle of the soundless street, with the tiny wet flakes collecting in our eyelashes. I taught the boys to catch snowflakes on their tongues. E sang happily to herself. We exchanged a cheerful “Merry Christmas” with the mailman.
The Christmas finery was ready:
Silver shoes, flower headband, and ruffle-bottomed tights. I love it.
I was grateful for those calm memories when we arrived home from the Christmas Eve service and our night devolved into chaos. We had three overtired, crying children: the boys wanted to play and have snacks and did not want to go to bed, and the baby was hungry. It was 10 o’clock by the time they were all snug in their beds, and then Mama and Daddy set to work with scissors, wrapping paper, and tape on the living room floor. We stumbled into bed at 1 am. Some (it felt like not very many) hours later our darling girl decided it would be a good idea to wake up early. Real Christmas is very glamorous.
This season I have been thinking about the contrast between my expectations for Christmas, and what the first Christmas was really like. I imagine Christmas always being like our dreamy afternoon walk: smiling families, children singing, quiet snow, and perfectly decked houses inside which (I assume) the celebrations are running just as perfectly. But I felt freed when it suddenly occurred to me that the first Christmas was nothing like that.
The first Christmas must have been chaos. There was a town bulging with dusty, tired travelers and brimming with political resentment. There was a young couple, not even (it appears) married yet and the woman clearly swollen in pregnancy. There was a baby coming, right now, here, with not even a room to themselves–did they wonder if they would have to have him in the street? Perhaps she was already staggering with birth pains when they stumbled into the stable. Was there really no room in Bethlehem–or was there just no room for them?
There was a barn–stinking, soiled, cold, and not at all sanitary. There was straw poking Mary, and quite possibly no one, other than a carpenter, to help this teenaged girl through the raw, new pain of childbirth. There was blood on the straw; there were animals stamping and snorting and in the way. There was a tiny baby, mewling, and a cord to cut, and hasty wrappings, and no place to put him but the dirty trough of animal feed. There was a mess to clean up, and a mother to keep warm as she fumbled through the process of learning to nurse a newborn. There was a clamor of ragged, unwashed men barging in, gasping and stammering, crowding around the baby. There was an utterly unknowable future to think of, as the shepherds’ shouting receded into the night, spreading the bizarre news that this couple had carried quietly for nine difficult, scandal-shadowed months. There was a diaper to change.
Peace on earth, the angels said. But Jesus’ coming has not brought peace, as we think of it. And he himself would later say that he had “not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). This Christmas season I have wrestled with the reality that Jesus does not always bring peace in the ways, and to the parts of my life, that I would like him to. What he brings is the peace we need most basically: peace with God–and the form that peace takes is himself.
A few days ago I was arrested by the first line of C’s favorite Christmas carol, which he asks for frequently: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” Emmanuel–God with us–comes to the rescue of Israel–the one who wrestles with God. Into our darkness, into our wrestlings, God comes.
My life is not overflowing with peace, and the Christmas season was not a miraculous interlude of order and harmony. In fact, it often looked like this:
But this season I found two of the most helpful pieces of truth I have read all year:
“The nighttime sky above us is not the absolute limit of reality. Our natural eyes only dimly comprehend the fullness of what is. Our routines are not the whole of what God has for us. When he opened the sky above Bethlehem, a shaft of his glory pierced our darkness. We are not alone. God is there.”
–Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr.
“For a love relationship to be healthy there must be a mutual loss of independence…Both sides must say to the other, ‘I will adjust for you. I will change for you. I’ll serve you even though it means a sacrifice for me.’…At first sight, then, a relationship with God seems inherently dehumanizing…I must adjust to God–there is no way that God could adjust to and serve me.
“While this may be true in other forms of religion and belief in God, it is not true in Christianity. In the most radical way, God has adjusted to us–in his incarnation and atonement. In Jesus Christ he became a limited human being, vulnerable to suffering and death. On the cross, he submitted to our condition–as sinners–and died in our place to forgive us. In the most profound way, God has said to us, in Christ, ‘I will adjust to you. I will change for you. I’ll serve you even though it means a sacrifice for me.'”
That is real Christmas peace. Going into the new year, I am trying to understand it.