Like many people, I'm a fan of Christmas. I enjoy the annual rituals, from putting up the tree to re-watching favorite movies/specials, to getting out all of the old music we only listen to at this time of year. Even the language and ideas of Christmas have become part of the ritual. Peace on Earth. Joy to the world. The season of love.
It seems like this year, more than ever, we — or at least I — need peace, joy, and love. Our nation, our communities, our circles of friendship, even our families, are in a season when differences, sadness, enmity, and downright division are facing us every day.
We need peace; not just as a lack of war or conflict, but in the sense of wholeness, as individuals and a community. It's unity and optimism. It's being comfortable enough in our own skin to put aside busyness, slow down and reflect. Our echo chambers are not peaceful.
We need joy; not as the opposite of sadness (that's happiness), but as a deep satisfaction, a belief that there is much to be thankful for regardless of the current circumstances. A choice to focus on the good things and celebrate them, in the face of bad news, grief, and discouragement.
We need love; not as an alternative to hate (okay, that, too), but as the answer to the loneliness and disconnection rampant in our culture and even in pockets of our own lives. For those of us who are distracted and over-stimulated, we need to see and be seen as we lock eyes with people every day — giving love, receiving love, in honest expressions of our humanity.
2017 is a tough season. But the promise and miracle of Christmas is that God is with us. The literal, physical presence of God is what we celebrate. Peace has come. Joy has come. Love has come. This annual ritual reminds us we are not alone, even in the darkest times (which is also literal if you live in my part of the world). But there's something else to it.
In the first century, a small Christian community was facing deep division. They agreed that they wanted to follow the teachings and example of Jesus, but over time they developed deep disagreement on how to go about it. Their strife had gone so far it overshadowed just about everything else in their faith, and they were losing sight of what mattered most. All they wanted was to win, to have things their way. So Paul, the man who had originally pulled them together as a faith community, wrote them a letter. A rebuke, in fact. He didn't mince words:
It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on. (link)
He could go on? Yikes. That little excerpt accurately describes a lot of what I've seen in 2017. Maybe you, too. Thankfully, Paul turns the corner. This rant is followed by an important word.
Paul creates a contrast between what is and what could be. He starts talking about the difference it makes when God is with us. When God is present, we see actual evidence of it. And at the top of Paul's list? Love. Joy. Peace.
When we are at our worst, God comes to us, and brings what we need most. This is encouraging, but it's also a bit of a reality check. If you don't see love, joy, and peace (plus some other beautiful traits like patience, goodness, faith, kindness, gentleness, and self-control), God is not there. But if you do see those things, they are evidence that God is with us.
Here's the something else. The evidence of God's presence is described in interpersonal language. It's relational. This goes back to the idea of a baby in a manger. God's presence is always personal, entrusted to our vulnerable and flawed humanity. What Jesus brings to us at Christmas is lived out through us — among each other.
Our need for peace, joy, and love unifies us. Emmanuel translates to "God with us." There's no "them.". We've contributed to the problem, and we are part of the solution. In my life, I've found that the best way to experience love, joy, and peace is to share it. Offering it to others is a reliable way to discover it in the spaces between us. That's what I'm hoping for all of us this Christmas and beyond.
Merry Christmas! Here's to many more.