Monday, December 7, 2015

Christmas Bells

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.

It doesn't feel much like Christmas, here in this hundred-and-twenty year old neighborhood in Montgomery, Alabama. The Spanish moss that cascades from the trees in front of our rented house drifts languidly in the warm air and when I take early afternoon walks I wish for the hundredth time I hadn't left my flip-flops at home (and why-oh-why didn't I bring any t-shirts?) It feels like the very Indian summeriest-of Indian summers and the gaudy leaves are still showering gently down and fall flowers bloom in the gardens of these quaint southern homes.

Still, lighted Christmas trees appear in the big front windows all around the neighborhood, and lights twinkle after dark. We have our own tiny little tree-in-a-pot with a strand of lights and a star on top– Sean's first Christmas tree, a tiny prelude to the trees he will see at his grandparents' houses this gypsying Christmas-all-over-the-country. I packed all our Christmas cds so that strains of Perry Como and Mannheim Steamroller and the Cambridge Singers come from the boombox which our landlady thoughtfully placed in the living room.

And thought, how as the day had come
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men

I could do a bit less, I will grant you, with "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" (the "Santa Is My Stalker" song, I call it) and while Sean is only five months old and rather oblivious to all that, I wonder how as a family we will foster the magic and whimsy of Christmas while avoiding as much as possible the legalism and materialism, the cold stark business transaction of "behave to earn stuff". Let our gift-giving reflect the Giver and let it be free and joy-filled! And may we cultivate wonder and whimsy and magic in the midst of the dry dust of this materialistic culture. One of my favorite Christmas books has always been J.R.R. Tolkien's Letters From Father Christmas– a collection of all the letters which Father Christmas wrote to the Tolkien children over a span of twenty-some years. Nate and I have discussed that perhaps in our family, the presents under the tree will be from us but the stockings are filled by Father Christmas– whom I prefer to Santa Claus (and the North Polar Bear is certainly a more engaging character than Rudolph!) I have long loved Beatrix Potter's Christmas tale The Tailor of Gloucester and have been enchanted to find that the "old story" that animals can talk on the night between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning shows up in other British books. I wish American history had its own set of tales of that sort, but I will happily borrow what I can from older cultures. I will teach my children that in a world fashioned by such a wildly creative God, not all that is true can be proved by the scientific method and that there is a place for magic and mystery, especially at Christmas when we celebrate the most wondrous Truth: God becoming Man!

Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.

Each year, it seems to me, a certain Christmas carol will take up lodgings in my heart and brain and I will find the words echoing over and over in my mind throughout the Advent days. This Christmas bell carol chimes peace, goodwill– and the news of the world is a harsh, discordant note, jarring and threatening the melody.

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, goodwill to men."

We can't escape it. Evil erupts out of the human heart and every time I get online there is death, disease, hunger, anger, hatred spilling over. Those made imago Dei seek to destroy their fellow image-bearers through weapons, through words. I am sheltered from the violence but I know the pain of death as I cuddle my son and remember his older sisters in this, their second Christmas in Heaven. I dream of the idyllic Christmas but I know that it will ever be out of reach in this sin-stricken world. 

If the idyl were possible, we wouldn't need Christmas. 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep!
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, goodwill to men."

Christ came because of disease, hunger, anger, hatred, and violence. He came to defeat death. The angels heralding his birth were sounding death's own death-knell. He died but He is risen, and every twinkling Christmas tree is a defiant declaration that darkness shall not have the last word. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light, Isaiah prophesied, on those that walk in the land of the shadow of death, on them light has dawned. In the snarling face of death we can stand in hope and sing of Jesus. In the despair of darkness we will light our trees and proclaim the Light of the World. 

Over all the tragic clamor of this groaning world: stop, be still, and hear the bells on Christmas Day.

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