For a number of respectable reasons, my husband and I decided to marry just nine weeks after he put the engagement ring on my finger. Those weeks of betrothal were crammed with decisions, a few tears, and a slew of (mostly) joyful preparations as we wrangled dresses, flowers, guests, and cakes into some semblance of order. On the morning of our wedding day, I walked over to Jon’s apartment and, as we ate an ordinary breakfast of toast and cereal, we anticipated the day's momentous events. "We can't really mess anything up now," I remember saying. "We've prepared all we can. Everyone else has a lot of work to do, but we only have to get dressed, walk down the aisle, and say what we're supposed to say." To which Jon thoughtfully replied: "We'll just have to make sure we don't mix up our vows and say something like, 'This is my volemn sow.'"
I laughed and cried my way through the whole ceremony, eventually requiring a moment to blow my nose in earnest before I kissed the groom. Although I did manage to say "This is my solemn vow" correctly, my memory of that morning's interchange threw me into a cataclysm of giggles before the altar. In the reception line, one of Jon's college friends greeted me by saying, "I'm so glad you could be emotionally present" — a very diplomatic way to frame my literal outpouring of feelings, but true enough in describing my ability to take in the intensity of the occasion.
Every year, Advent and Christmas descend upon me in a torrent of activity quite like the brief weeks of our engagement. Some years I start preparations early in November, ticking off the less savory tasks (buying stamps, cleaning out the fridge) in order to make room for more favored ones (reading Christmas books). Some years I get a late start and battle insomnia for weeks on end as I wrestle my to-do list into submission. In mid-November of this year, I had a nightmare in which I suddenly realized it was December 24 and I had neither purchased gifts nor prepared music for our church the following day. My visions of perfection can spiral quickly into a mania that would make baby Jesus cry.
And yet I adore this season. The twinkling fairy lights, the manger, the whirlwind of butter and sugar, Linus reciting the Christmas story, the silent nights breaking forth into beauteous heavenly light, the stories and poems, the Dickens, Sinatra, and Jimmy Stewart, the close and holy darkness, the raucous jingling of bells, the puddings and toffees — I can hardly get enough of it all. I stuff myself so full of cheer that, come January 6, I am replete, content to meekly observe the rest of the church year until Christmas future comes to pass.
In the midst of the bustle, I steal away for moments of stillness and meditation. These crevices of peace sustain me as I plunge myself back into the merry labors of the season. I run on peppermint-scented fumes for weeks on end, anticipating the moment when I can put down my rolling pin and call it Christmas.
This year, Christmas Day falls on a Sunday — a Sabbath day, full of the promise of rest and a call to cease activity. Most Christmas Days in my recent past are celebrated in a fog of relief, allowing myself to experience the quietude of the season after I've run a four-week marathon. Lately, I've been pondering this deep experience of rest. There is an especially sweet quality to the stillness that comes after a period of intense exertion. The second chapter of Luke brims over with this dynamic. Mary and Joseph frantically seek a safe place to spend the night. The young virgin endures a lonely labor and childbirth with only her fiancé and a collection of barnyard animals in attendance. Startled shepherds receive a message from the heavenly host that sends them in a dash to see a baby born in a stable. By all accounts, the figures in our manger scene should be dripping with sweat from effort and anxiety.
And yet, they aren’t sweating — and that might even be realistic. I like to think they took a minute to mop their brows and have a drink of water. They hold still for a little while, breathing in the smell of hay, listening to the new baby gurgling, beholding the miracle of miracles: God with us. There is still plenty to do: the shepherds will soon be overcome with the urge to spread the good news, Mary needs to figure out how to nurse a baby (not to mention escape Herod) — and have they even been counted yet in the census? But for a few moments they can treasure all these things and ponder them in their hearts as they marvel together, bewildered and happy.
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
’Round yon virgin mother and child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace.
This peace seems to me like the type of rest the Lord offers on every Sabbath — one day each week during which I can stop, breathe, mop my own brow, and drink a cup of water. In surrendering my work, my compulsions — maybe even just for a day — I can acknowledge that God is God, that I am just one little person, and that still, he loves me with an indescribable love. The Sabbath can be a very real way to receive this gift from him — the best (and the original) gift-of-the-week club.
But it’s not easy. That stillness can be laden with pain as well as peace. If you are coming to Christmas with the trepidation familiar to those with complicated family issues or unresolved hopes and dreams, there is space here to grieve or lament or give way to some celestial venting. For a few moments, you can be emotionally present to the intensity of the season, offer it to Jesus, and receive the heavenly peace of a silent and holy night.
Whether you love Christmas or dread it, or experience its joys and stresses as a mixed bag, hear the Lord's invitation to rest — at least for a little while — on Christmas Day. He gives you permission to acknowledge all of those feelings and then to lay them down for a time. That may mean savoring a book and a cup of cocoa for a few minutes, or indulging in a long winter's nap, or playing Legos with a child, or walking through a starry night. Whatever you choose, allow the Lord the opportunity to replenish your soul as his Christmas gift to you. And until then, receive this Christmas blessing from my heart to yours:
Love and joy come to you!
And to you glad Christmas too!
And God bless you and send you a happy new year,
And God send you a happy new year.