Art By J. Kirk Richards
One of my favorite poets wrote a Christmas verse from the depths of his solemn despair. From that despair came an unshaken hope. Of Christ, this poet once wrote:
Though in a manger thou drawest thy breath,
Thou are greater than Life and Death…
Even in the beauty of that first Christmas, there was an overarching weight of the magnitude of His ultimate destiny. And it makes me a bit solemn to think about it.
And in the solemnity of joy, I believe that is where Christmas touches me most deeply.
Perhaps it is because, in the end, it is the moments of our greatest despair that we desperately reach out to grasp the hope and joy that the Christ child offered to every single human person on earth. And in the end, it is in those moments of darkness that His Star rains fire on us and we know. And it sets our souls aflame with the absolute conviction-
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.
I think that if we turn to Him, we can understand that some of the greatest, deepest joy in life comes from the light we find as we reach for the Savior to help us out of the deepest abyss.
One Christian pastor wrote about her experience with what she called “the solemnity of joy,” and I realized that I am not alone in feeling this way, and that, indeed the most profound Christmas joy can be experienced even amidst deep anguish:
We entered the vast cavern of the darkened cathedral. We sang, we prayed, we listened to the magnificent choir, we heard the story of Jesus’ birth, God incarnate, coming among us to share the joy and pain of our human lives. We received his body and blood, were given God’s blessing, and sang to sing “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” I sang the descant along with the choir and felt my voice soaring through the vast dome of the cathedral, up through the cold night air, and into heaven. I was transported. I wanted to cheer and shout and dance, because Christ was born and I was having a really really good time. And then as soon as the music ended, I sat down, bowed my head, and sobbed.
Christmas and Epiphany are solemn times. They are full of a joy and wonder that is more than just fun. Our society’s emphasis on having a Happy Christmas has no room for that young woman sobbing in the cathedral at 1:00 on Christmas morning; there are no Christmas cards that include her, no John Lewis adverts that feature her face. And it puts her in a separate category from the woman singing with joy only moments before.
But the story of the incarnate God has room for both, side by side. Jesus didn’t come into the world so we could be magically cheerful and perky for the last two weeks of December. He came into the world so that God could share our humanity, to be born and die as one of us, and give us new and eternal life. That news can give us joy, but only if our definition of joy is deeper than brightly coloured good times, deep enough to encompass solemnity. Only if it is a joy that comes from awe and wonder, and not just the feeling that everything is wonderful right now and you’re having a lot of fun…
So, if you are feeling those feelings side by side, it is alright–it may be that you end up having the most deeply joyful Christmas you have experienced. My most beautiful Christmas was the first one after our daughter died. I have never been more convinced of the reality of the significance of Christ’s mission…
In these perilous times, Henry Longfellow’s testimony is so very relevant to us:
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
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, good-will to men!”
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 the earth, good-will to men.”
Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
I highly encourage everyone to take the eight minutes to watch this beautiful telling of Longfellow’s story behind the song…you will not be disappointed, and perhaps it may fill you with as much true joy as it filled me when I watched it:
*First image credit J. Kirk Richards.