The following, slightly modified, was written for presentation in worship at First United Methodist Church of Springboro this past weekend. Before that, I used a slightly different version for a devotional on Facebook Live. If you're feeling the weight of grief this Christmas...even "just" grief from the loss of "normal," may these words bring a little comfort to you. Merry Christmas.
Think for a minute about the night of Jesus’ birth. Little Bethlehem was crowded to overflowing for the census. People were gathering everywhere…no social distancing. I can easily imagine the noises, the smells of animals and food and unwashed bodies, the jostling for space. It must have been sensory overload for a young couple from little nowhere Nazareth.
On Christmas Eve, when we sing Silent Night, it’s easy to forget that chaos. The beautiful, soft song about a calm, quiet, holy night represents the spirit of Christmas—our longing for peace—more than the literal reality of that night, with Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus crammed into a stable and dealing with visiting shepherds spreading the words of the heavenly hosts to all…a good night, but not a quiet one.
Mary handles the mess calmly. She treasures these things and ponders them in her heart.
Christmas 2020 needs a bit of pondering in our hearts, too. What do we think of this strange Christmas season? How do we process what’s happening?
We can use our technology to Zoom with family and friends, and we can order gifts to be shipped online. We can send cards and boxes of homemade goodies through the mail. We can decorate our homes and worship and light candles online, using the Advent kits our church handed out. These substitutes for our usual traditions and comforts help…some. But Christmas 2020 is unprecedented in our lives. It won’t be the same as Christmases Past.
What do we think about this? In his book Stillness is the Key, Ryan Holiday says that we need to find more moments of silence in which to think, and he describes a place in Helsinki, Finland, designed for that. “[T]here is a small building called the Kamppi Chapel It’s not a place of worship, strictly speaking, but it’s as quiet as any cathedral. Quieter, in fact, because there are no echoes. No organs. No enormous creaking doors. It is, in fact, a Church of Silence. It’s open to anyone and everyone who is interested in a moment of quiet spirituality in a busy city. You walk in and there is just silence. Glorious, sacred silence.”
Where do you go to find glorious, sacred silence, a peace so deep that you can ponder?
The silence that gives good pondering doesn’t come in a Christmas Eve candlelight service. Think about it. There, we gather in community, crammed into pews—no social distancing. The little ones are restless and often “help” with the readings and the preaching and the prayers. The songs are participatory, the readings often responsive, and when we light the candles, we are multitasking…singing, tilting, passing the light, trying not to spill wax or light the person in front of us on fire, trying to keep little ones from lighting themselves on fire.
Silent Night—the song—is wonderful for bringing community together in peace, hope, love, and joy. But maybe not in silence.
The psalmist said, “Be still and know that I am God.” It's a good verse to guide us through this mess.
Christmas 2020 will not be the same for any of us, and that grieves us. It is a loss. Whether this is a first Christmas without a loved one, or a first Christmas without the long drive to Grandma’s house to gather with the whole family, or a first Christmas without a crowded candlelight service, it’s just not going to be the same. How do we reimagine Silent Night? How do we reimagine Christmas in the time of COVID?
I think we’re being invited to ponder the meaning of it all in a very real and profound way. Because as much as we want Christmas to be about gathering and eating together and exchanging gifts together and caroling together and passing fire down the pews together, the real meaning, the real celebration, the real truth of Christmas is that Christ our Savior is born. That’s our treasure.
God willing, we will have more Christmases for traveling, gathering and passing the light in community, but this Christmas brings its own treasure, if we can be still and know it. If we can find the Kamppi Chapel in our own homes and hearts for glorious, sacred silence to ponder God’s love for us.
Seek out those moments you can be still and silent…there may well be more of them this year. As you are still, know that Emmanuel, God with us, is born. My hope is that we will treasure this, and ponder it in our hearts, just like Mary so long ago.
Peace be with you.