Vol. 14, Iss. 3
Holiday Pops & Christmas
The Rev. Peter J. Miano
I go to Symphony Hall in Boston for the annual Holiday Pops concert as often as I can, as part of my holiday celebration and preparation. The Pops is the lite version of the Boston Symphony Orchestra performing holiday classics and there is nothing quite like it to help make the season feel festive, cheery and gay. Santa Claus always shows up. There is always a sing-along. The entire adult audience, thirsty for an excuse, indulges in sheer glee.
A couple of years ago, though, it so happened that on the day of the concert, a disturbed young man brought tragedy and horror to his community and shock to our nation when he entered an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. and killed 20 children and six teachers before turning his weapons on himself. All of a sudden, the frivolity of the Holiday Pops seemed not only strangely incongruous, but somehow perverse, too. Who can celebrate in such circumstances? But there I was at show time along with my elegant date and a concert hall full of other ambivalent revelers. Still, anticipation was tempered with deep sorrow. Excitement was garnished with shock. Joy seemed unthinkable or at least inappropriate.
Before the orchestra filed onto the stage, even before the curtain was drawn, Keith Lockhart, the conductor, walked on stage. The hall was utterly dark, except for the spotlight that illuminated him alone. Naming the horror that had broken that day and the ambivalence we all felt, he opened a Bible he had brought and read these words:
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the
Word was God…the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome
it. John 1:1, 5
So often, the beauty and joy of life is mocked by tragedy, sorrow and loss. Advent and even Christmas itself are not immune to life’s inevitable, yet unpredictable and various assaults on our frantic efforts to deny life’s sorrows. This year, no less than that Advent night three years ago, preparation for Christmas is framed amidst the myriad tragedies of human life. I wonder what joy there is this season for Christians in Beirut or Paris or Colorado Springs or San Bernardino who lost loved ones to violence.
In A Charlie Brown Christmas, Linus struggles with anxiety as he anticipates opening night of the pageant. He struggles not just to memorize, but to repeat the verse at the heart of the Christmas story: “For behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which will be to all people; for unto you this day is born in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.” We don’t learn what circumstances Linus finds himself in when he is stumbling over his lines. But we know that Advent and Christmastide are seasons of contrasts and ambivalence that evoke not only nostalgic feelings of past celebrations and warm memories of family reunions, but also feelings of sadness, loneliness and isolation. Joy is often tempered by loss. Family gatherings can be marred by lingering resentments and unresolved grievances. Celebration is too often encumbered by fear and uncertainty. Despite the carolers singing of peace on earth and the heartfelt exchanges of good will to all people, Christmas is rarely a season of unmitigated joy. It can also be a season when sorrow is most deeply felt and feelings of loss are intensified and loneliness is magnified. For some, Christmas is one of the hardest times of the year to feel joyful. To others, joyousness may seem like a sentimental impossibility. For all, news of shocking violence and reports of human suffering is never too far from our conscious awareness.
Then again, in what circumstances did those caroling angels find the shepherds? And what do we make of the darkness in which the light shines? Surely, our celebration is not meant to blot out our recollection of Jesus’ birth circumstances. The Gospel narratives make pointed reference to the newborn savior’s vulnerability to the power of evil. It begins in Luke with the story of a family forced to migrate by a distant ruler’s edict only to find themnselves shut out by their own family. In Matthew, the infant Jesus is persecuted by a wicked king. His family must flee into Egypt to escape arbitrary political tyranny. Refugees. Immigrants. Political instability. Ruthlessness. These are the background of the Christmas narrative. For Joseph and his wife, not even family provided sanctuary. Sounds like our world, doesn’t it? Not even Holy Scripture, to which we turn each Christmas, allows us to avoid or ignore the darker realities of human life. Its message of great joy and comfort for all people does not occur in a sentimental vacuum, but rather in the context of persecution, fear, and uncertainty.
Joy, in the biblical sense, is not some superficial exhortation to be “happy” in the face of great sorrow. Rather, it is the inward assurance that in spite of our life’s circumstances, God is with us. The light shines in the darkness. Jesus is born amidst danger and persecution. The angels appeared to the marginalized and untouchable shepherds in the midst of a nighttime of fear and uncertainty. Joy is the awareness that God is with us and for us in spite of our circumstances, regardless of who we are, where we are or how we are.
A long time ago, a parishioner of mine died just before Christmas. He was a young man. His death was sudden. He left a wife and two young kids. I had more than a little trepidation as I approached their home to visit with his bereaved wife. Platitudes and Bible quotations are just not enough under those kind of circumstances and I wondered what else I could offer. I mentioned in passing how nicely her home was decorated. She replied, “You know, some people say to me, ‘This first Christmas without your husband will be hard for you.’ Probably it will be. But without Christmas, grieving would be unbearable.” I learned a lot about theology that day.
Christmas in its deepest and truest expression occurs in all circumstances. It is where love is more important than superficial happiness and where God’s presence is more tangible than the things we find under the Christmas tree. Christmas is the celebration of the presence of God in our lives even when there is fear and hardship, even when we feel alone, even when we feel forgotten or when we can’t seem to find our way. Christmas is God’s assurance that we are loved with a love from which we cannot be separated. That is all. Yet, that is all we truly need, too. Somehow, that assurance makes all the difference in the world and for the world. Christmas 2015 will come in spite of the circumstances and thank God for that, because as sorrow-filled as our world is, how much more desperate our world would be without the inescapable presence of God with us. For too many people and in too many places, this Christmas will be marred by loss, sorrow, loneliness and the threat of meaninglessness. Joy will be hard to feel. But, then again, our world without Christmas would be unbearable. This Christmas, I hope that you are able to participate anew in the wonder of the birth of God for all of us and for all times.
For behold I bring you tidings of great joy for all people. For unto you is born a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” Lk. 2:10-11)
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