Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Silent Night….

Among the moments I most look forward to each year is the end of our Christmas Eve service. We’ve typically spent the past half hour reading familiar stories, singing beloved carols, reflecting together on the glorious mystery that is Jesus, Emmanuel, God with Us. Then I’ll walk to the back of the sanctuary and turn off the lights and pass around flame from the Advent Wreath candle to handheld candles we’re holding. As dimness first falls and then slowly recedes- these simple torches collectively pushing back the dark- Jeremae leads the congregation in singing Silent Night. We go through four verses; often the piano cuts out toward the end. And a peace that passes understanding wraps our church for a blessed moment. Every year, I feel a chill and a flash of profound awe. God is here, among us, prepared to still love us, from everlasting to everlasting.

We’ll do that again this year; join us for a Christmas Eve service staring at 4:30PM. But as I’ve thought recently about not just that time of worship, but the entire Advent season, something struck me about the Christmas narratives that, honestly, hasn’t before. There are very few, if any, silent nights in those familiar texts. You know the stories I’m referring to- Mary and Joseph learning she’s pregnant, Magi traveling to honor the Christ child, shepherds and angels outside Bethlehem. The Christmas story, broadly conceived. Night figures into many of these plots. The characters are sleeping, or praying, or waiting. And time and again, God or something divine shows up, interrupting what those people were doing. Which is to say, their nights are markedly unsilent. Not peace, but disruption descends.

For instance, take Joseph, who’s snoring away one evening. He has a dream telling him, “Your fiancĂ© is pregnant and the kid’s going to save your people.” I don’t imagine he woke up slowly from that dream, no languid morning yawn. God arrived and totally disrupted his plans, his family, his life.

Not only does that shocking disturbance contrast with the peace I feel singing Silent Night, I’m wondering if it contrasts with many of our spiritual expectations. In other words, it’s bigger than Christmas. We often expect comfort and calm from God. I’ll sing “Abide with Me” one May Sunday morning and sway in relaxed contentment. I’ll say my prayers before dinner one evening and, with a self-satisfied grin, dig in. Occasionally, I’ll include in that mealtime grace a phrase, “May you care for those going without tonight.” But never, in response to that prayer, have I stepped outside to share my table with someone nearby in need. Never have I left that table once dinner’s over to make a donation to IOCP’s food shelf. Not that any of us have to do that in order to claim spiritual integrity. The point is, rather, that saying grace to me is an exercise in comfort or routine. It’s certainly not a time I expect God to disturb me. I wonder if I ever do.

But we should, right? We should expect that God, every now and then or more often, wants to shake things up. Of course, sometimes we beg for it! Those times we’re feeling down, at a loss, in need of help, nowhere to turn. But other times, when life is smooth and we’re feeling in control, on top of things, God knows others don’t have that good feeling, and you could probably help out. Besides, spiritual growth never ends. We’ve never fully developed our relationship to God. And being human, you (and I!) get into routines, into comfort zones that arrest growth.

So this Advent, I think it’ll do you and me some spiritual good to think of such things. To re-encounter the story of Christmas as a parade of unsilent nights. We’ll still sing beloved, familiar songs at church. We’ll re-enact that annual waiting for Christ’s birth. But we’ll ponder that event in light of God’s tendency not just to comfort us, but also to disturb us. After all, Christmas isn’t normal. God, in flesh, dwelling among us…?! You’d think that would change someone’s world, right?

Well, does it yours?

Grace and Peace,
Read more!