I woke up at 4:00 this morning. All my life I’ve been waking up early on Christmas. As a boy, it was because I couldn’t start Christmas Day soon enough. My brother and sister and I would wake up very early, to find Christmas stockings hanging from the bedsteads, chock full of candy and chocolates (plus, always, an orange). We were very disciplined, we kids, about not eating all the candy at once, even before our Mom got up. We’d spread it out on the bed, admiring the sheer volume of sweets that had come our way. Sometimes we’d make trades among ourselves. And we were (or at least I was) convinced that it all came from Santa Claus.
There’s no stocking full of candy for me on Christmas anymore. I’m not even particularly interested in candy, as a matter of fact. Nor did I lie awake last night listening for the sound of Santa’s reindeer on our rooftop. Yes, as a child I believed all that Santa stuff, hook line and sinker. Though long after I stopped believing it, I still tended to lie awake on that annual night before Christmas, listening to the night sounds: perhaps a train in the distance, or the sound of the wind in the trees, or just the creaking sound a house makes sometimes (my Mom used to say the house was “settling”), and feeling somehow a strange sense of wonder and longing, just like I did as a child.
So it has always been a restless listening kind of sleep for me, that one night every year. The very fact that my body seems to retain the memory of that one night in 365 cycle, even after all these years, testifies I think to the power of the belief I once had in all that magical side of Christmas. A faith strong enough to keep you up at night, and listening for hoofbeats on the rooftop! The reason it didn’t bother me that we didn’t have a fireplace, by the way, and therefore no chimney by which Santa could get into our house, was because I knew that Santa was magical. He wouldn’t be stymied by lack of a chimney. Santa could do things. Santa was not like the rest of us, blocked by walls and locked doors and narrow chimneys (or no chimney at all), or even bound by gravity.
All that magical stuff was storytelling to surround some nugget of important truth, which had to do with such difficult to embody things as love, charity, peace. Even as a small boy I vaguely understood this much. It wasn’t all about the presents you got so much as a day, one day, to be unwary, unrestricted, in our joyfulness. One day. You wanted it to go on longer, of course, but it never did. Magic is always that way. There are limits to our access. It may be spectacular, but it’s always brief. The angels filling the sky with hosannas didn’t last all night, nor did it ever recur again. The briefer it is, the more special. The more, well, magical.
We could rid our skies of all heavenly choirs, I suppose, banish them to the dustbin of childish belief systems now usefully replaced by the politics and trade. But no matter how much the day-to-day, the rat race as it used to be called, the world that is too much with us, as Wordsworth famously said, no matter how much all that seems to blear our capacity for wonder, along comes Christmas. Christmas, as bleared and smeared a good thing as ever there was, yet despite all that, there was I, lying awake at four in the morning, remembering hoofbeats on the roof.
I guess the point I'm trying to make is, the wonder is still there, waiting to be stirred, awakened. But it will not be fairy tales that do the trick. It will be, I think, the real. And the my mind wanders back to the stable in Bethlehem. The babe in the manger. God becoming man.
Magical thinking again, I’m sure many would say. Whatever. I’m not here to convince the naysayers otherwise. In taking on flesh, in humbling himself that way, Jesus took on something debilitating. In entering our world, he gave up access to the intense reality of heaven in order to join with folks who feel blessed even to have one single moment of near restfulness, the cessation if only for some brief interval of endless stress, fear, loneliness, pain, etc. Jesus, my savior, was a flesh and blood living and dying man. Much more as well, but certainly not less.
So we would have a quiet Christmas this year. My wife and I, sharing a pleasant meal (lasagna!), and talking about our favorite Christmas carols. Outside it was sunny and warmish and blustery, making me think of an early March day. Jesus walked in all weathers, and had to bundle from cold at times, or suffer the extreme heat of Palestine at other times. Sometimes his feet hurt, I’m sure. Always he ached within with a spiritual ache to see his Father’s world renewed. He was going about Palestine, in fact, announcing that very possibility. He was opening eyes, opening hearts. His story has extremes of the magical in it, and extremes of the very unmagical . . . cruelty, squalor, sorrow. On the one hand it’s quite unbelievable (I mean, what is this about walking on water, healing people with a touch, feeding thousands with a few crusts of bread), and on the other hand it’s sadly believable. We have all known traitorous friends, after all, or bullying mockers. They appear in the Jesus story as well.
What am I getting at? I don’t even know for sure myself. But all of history hinges on those events in and around the ancient city of Jerusalem, two thousand years ago. Something began there that cannot be stopped or diverted. A new thing, an inevitable revolution. It has nothing to do with elves, or grinches, or talking snowmen, or reindeer, or a fat man in a red suit. Yet all those fairy tales are not exactly off the mark either. They’re trying to get at something we have all wished for, even when, especially when, we were children. That which we long for, oh please make it real!
But only the very author of the real can make something real that isn’t. Like peace, for example. Real peace. Lasting, settled, and perfect peace. It will not be fantasy figures that bring that to pass. It will be the most real man who ever lived, making real what had only ever been dreamed of, longed for, and that the best of our storytellers have tried to capture in stories and poems and songs. A world where real peace was possible! Think of it! We have never come close on our own. Except, sometimes, lying awake on a special night, listening, wondering. We need, we have always needed, the author of peace (the very Prince of Peace) to make peace possible by entering into the story of which he himself is the author. Peace itself, walking around in this world, talking to people, touching them, changing their lives.
There’s a lot more that can be said, and must be said, about this man. That will be for other times. But for now, to end, I want to go back to the prophet Isaiah, who lived nearly 800 years before Jesus. He said the very remarkable things. He forecast the way God would unfold his story in the world. To end with, here’s one of his forecasts. It’s worth repeating on this day especially.
To us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:6–7)