Reflections on a Cold Silent Night
As you may have gathered on Christmas Eve to reflect on the significance of the new-born Christ child, let me invite you to reflect some about the significance of this great event. There are so many paradoxes that we can appreciate as we seek to grasp more of the meaning of the miracle of Christmas. Here are just a few. The first is the paradox that has been recognized by the Church through the ages, but is worthy of recounting anew. John’s Christmas story reports that the true light which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world (John 1:9). The great Light and the Life that came into the World, we celebrate each year on one of the shortest days of the year… in the dead of a cold winter’s night.
Yes, we do not know the date or even the month of the year in which our Lord’s birth took place; nevertheless, it is fitting that we observe it here in late December at the onset of winter. Winter reminds us that we live in a fallen world as frail creatures who are not in charge of our own existence. Gathering together on a Christmas Eve winter’s night reminds us that we are not in control of many and great forces that determine so much of our human condition. While it is true that we reap what we sow, we sense especially during the winter time how much we must wait on the Lord of life for our very survival: for our food and drink – and of course warm clothing and adequate shelter from a winter’s snow covered night.
Moreover, the gloom and cold of the season are not restricted to the season’s weather conditions. Joy to the World meets so many people this time of year in the midst of great depression and sadness. While Christmas is always advertised as a time of merriment and the enjoyment of warm family bonds, this only serves to remind many of the winter condition of their own lives – fragmented and estranged relationships in the family and lives being lived without any sense of real hope. Tis’ the season to be jolly, but so many are most certainly not! Each year we are reminded that the 12 days of Christmas bring annually the highest suicide rates of the year.
The plain truth of Christmas is that only the hope of the Christ child can turn the silent nights of winter into a holy night of joy and peace. God is born in Bethlehem. He has come to us in the winter of our human condition – the winter of our malcontent – not simply to maintain and preserve us in our fallen world; but to make all things new – to reconcile us wayward sons and daughters to God and to restore this fragmented and fallen world.
From the key texts in the New Testament, we listen to the humble pictures of Christmas presented by Matthew and Luke but contrasted paradoxically by John. In John’s Christmas story we are informed that to take in the event of Christmas in its true significance, we are encouraged to behold the glory of the Word Who became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). This however, is not an easy thing to do – beholding the glory. It takes the eyes of faith! John’s lofty report well correlates with the words of the prophet Isaiah, put to majestic melody and harmony by Handel – King of kings and Lord of lords – and the full chorus singing about that day – when the Glory of the Lord shall be revealed.
But it takes a real stretch even with the eyes of faith to connect this lofty language with the details of the Christmas story in Matthew and Luke. The unwed mother, no room at the inn, the barn with all the animals, and a new born babe lying in a feed trough. These rude and humble details call to mind something quite different from how we would imagine the Word becoming flesh and encountering the King of kings and Lord of lords. God’s peace on earth was certainly mercy mild… very mild indeed!
The shepherds in their fields were spooked by the angels, but not at all by beholding the Creator of the Universe in Bethlehem. The lamb of God looked even more helpless than the ones they were familiar with in their fields. The words of St. Paul in Philippians 2 summarizes so well how the Son became incarnate: He humbled himself, he made himself nothing . (Phil. 2:6) The Christmas story startles us with a picture of the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings becoming an infant baby in diapers placed into a feed trough by a couple of nervous teenagers. The eternal Word of God… there He is and if you timed it right, it might be time to change his diapers. Moreover, if you think about it, the event of His arrival into the world was probably witnessed by more animals than people. Oh, indeed in the little town of Bethlehem… How silently! How silently!… the wondrous gift was given.
From Christmas stories we have heard we need to recognize, however, that this story of Immanuel, God with us, is not just His story. It is our story also. We are taken up into it and we become a part of the Christmas story as the Word that has become flesh has also become fruitful. This Righteous One of God has come to be your champion, to suffer and die for your sins; to win your battles against sin, death, and the devil; to fulfill and overcome the curse of the Law for you; to raise you up to be of some earthly good; and then to prepare a place for you in His heavenly family and Kingdom.
From the dead of winter, He has come to act out his story given to Him by the Father and then to make that story yours as well. He has come to take you out of the winter of your sinful existence, and by the power of the Father’s planted Word – to give to you the springtime of new life with your Maker! The branch from the stem of Jesse has borne fruit. He is both the Seed that has brought forth new life in you, and He is the Bread of Life beckoning you to come and eat and be hungry no more. In His life you have hope and in His death, you have life.
So here in the winter season of cold deadness, reflecting on the Silent Night, pull up a chair — eat, drink, and be merry. Let all the images and metaphors of Christmas fill you with wonder and joy again this year. In the Eden of the Church, He has raised up a Second Adam to lead you from the cursed ground back to Paradise; from the land of thorns and thistles to the land of milk and honey; from the valley of the shadow of death to the green pastures and the still waters. He has raised up the Son of David, the One who is your Lord and King, to reestablish His Kingdom with a government that shall execute God’s justice without end.
Here in the Silent night of a winter season He does not bring just a thaw, a momentary relief from the numbing cold of your fallen existence but, by the warmth of His life and light, He raises you up unto newness of life begotten of His righteousness and forgiveness… alive, growing, and fit for fruitful living. Merry Christmas to you all, and to all of you, a very good night!