I heard the bells o Christmas day, their Old familiar carols play.
Christmas songs are familiar. The same songs every year, with occasional additions, bring joy. It is the one time of year when everyone hums, everyone knows the song. These enduring carols each capture a glimpse of Christmas; they reintroduce the story of the nativity. Or, in some cases, they glory in the celebration itself, disposing hearts toward joyful appreciation.
And mild and sweet, their words repeat with Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men.
Like a bell, repeating, resounding, echoing sometimes loud, sometimes quiet, this carol is simple and lovely, musically. It begins with sentimentality. Soft, familiar. Beautiful. But is it real? Is there any depth to the joy of Christmas?
I 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.
This year, a familiar battle played out once again in my new hometown, Leesburg, VA. Christians, every year, want to put a nativity scene on display at the courthouse. Atheists see the dislay as an assault on the separation of Church and state. The court tried to settle the dispute fairly. Last year they decided that anyone can put up a display, they just need to get a permit which are given first come first served. It seemed sensibly settled. Christians could have our nativity. Non-Christians who want to celebrate a secular Christmas could have their secular displays. An atheist display last year included a "letter from Jesus" enjoining his followers to follow him with more humilty.
But, of course, mankind being what it is, sensible solutions did not solve the problem. Christians got angry with the (relatively innocuous) displays. Atheists were not appeased- they did not want their own display, they wanted the nativity to disappear. The battle continued. And this year, the atheist struck a low blow. Will Christians still stand behind free speech? Atheists hung a skeleton, dressed as Santa, on a cross as their display. Defended, I could almost be persuaded that it held a cerain artistic value. Something about the consumerism of a secular Christmas. The sin of man put to death. conquered by the cross. It could almost be a Christian message. This delusion sharply deteriorates, however, when you bring your three year old through town. It is an assault. It is meant as an assault. We are supposed to see it, cringe, and take down the nativity.
Then 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.
Hate is strong. There is so much evil in the world. The skeleton Santa is just an ugly image, albeit an image designed to disturb the joyful, if sometimes shallow, sentimentality of this season. Perhaps it is silly to get worked up over an image when there are so many examples of real evil, real hatred.
It is easy to find examples of hate. Easier still, if we can expand what we mean by hate to evil. Evil.
People lie. Sometimes they lie at the expense of other people. Good people fall to pieces; destroyed by things like addiction or mental illness. Religious zealots attack. Atheists recoil and respond with equal or increased venom. War. Poverty. Greed. Illness.
I began to write this post over a week ago. When I began, I had a clear direction. Somewhere in the middle, my thoughts frayed. I could not finish it.
I felt as though I was unraveling too. Every end I could imagine fell flat. I wrote and erased about a half dozen endings. They all seemed either false or trite.
I have often used this blog to talk myself out of feeling sorry for myself. I believe with all my heart that God uses suffering to grow great fruits. I believe that we are called to be joyful.
The tagline I chose, "Rejoice always; pray without ceasing," finishes in scripture with the explanation, "for this is the will of God, in Christ Jesus, for you." Really God? This is your will? Sarah was only home for three weeks! I could not sleep. I could not go home. I was second guessing my parenting. If I had noticed sooner...insisted we stay in the ER the first time... If I had not taken my daughter out of the house... Could I cave protected her from this? Protected all of us? I was feeling very sorry for myself.
On Wednesday, Sarah seemed to be improving in many real ways. Most notably, she was breathing on her own. We had moved out of the ICU and into a "family centered care" wing. There, I was primarily responsible for Sarah. But, I could not feed her. Only the nurses were allowed to use the machines, and it takes a machine to feed her. I could not give her any medicine. I could hold her, play with her, burp her and bathe her. No one came into the room except by request. I had no idea how long we were going to be there. Days? Weeks? The doctors would only vaguely answer, as they always do, "It depends on Sarah."
I was lonely. I told myself I deserved a bit of self pity and I indulged. I spent Christmas, New Year's and my wedding anniversary in the hospital.
Sarah cried all day. As often as she was awake, she cried. It broke my heart. I began to feel like I was not strong enough. Or maybe, just not attune enough to my daughter. I was something not enough. I would get her to sleep, and then some unsuspecting hospital employee would come in. They knew me. They knew I was friendly and wanted to chat.
Imagine being the brunt of an enraged, probably unhinged Momma because you dared to say, "Hello!" This did not help my social depravation.
Its OK, I told myself. Sarah usually sleeps all night. She often sleeps from midnight till ten. I talked to my husband on the phone. He reassured my, with his calm faith, that God was in control.
At three in the morning, Sarah was still crying. I was crying too. I put her in her crib and went to my bathroom and cried. But, not wanting Sarah to be alone in her misery, and certainly not wanting to be caught crying, I composed myself. My body, if not my emotions, were under control. I went back out. Too tired to sing, or hold my daughter, I decided to read a light-hearted murder mystery and pat her back.
The first page I read, the hero of the book (not an overtly Christian book, just light brain candy) preached, "cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you."
I must be very dense, that the Lord always chooses such obvious messages and vehicles for His message. I closed my book and I prayed. I tried to set aside my anxiety. I calmed. Sarah calmed. By four, we were both asleep.
We were woken at seven. I was livid, but I bit my tongue. I had to know what the plan for Sarah was. As it turns out, at seven, they took her off all oxygen support. They knew she did not need it awake, but to go home, they had to see her in a deep sleep, and not struggling to get enough oxygen through her blood. Fortunately, since she had been awake so long, she slept easily all day. We were discharged that night!
Then pealed the bells, more loud and deep, "God is not dead, nor does He sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on Earth, goodwill to men."
Nothing huge changed. There is still evil throughout the world, and indeed much close to home.
But if we listen, and sometimes even when we don't, the almighty, eternal, all-powerful God speaks. The evil cannot win.
God is listening. He is watching. He loves us. Our Father, ever alert to our needs, cares more deeply than we can imagine. Our pain pains Him. He is more aware, and more sensitive to hate.
And we, His people, are the bells carrying His message, ever the same. He is eternal and eternally good. He has conquered the night. His is the victory, and the evil of this world- deeply painful and impossible to ignore- is not eternal.
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!