"How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift
Christmas carols are filled with a contrasting range of emotions: from the silence of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" to the trumpet-blaring celebration of "Joy to the World". No wonder this season, for some, is depressing. How can we pretend to feel this joy if our lives tell us otherwise? How can we claim to know this silence in a world full of noise and distractions? If indeed all we can do is pretend that such ideals still exist, despite the materialism and hypocrisy that go along with Christmas, we are fooling ourselves.
Five years ago, I invited a collector to whom I had recently been introduced, to a Christmas Eve service at my church. It was the first Christmas service he had ever attended. The service was a simple one in which we sang Christmas carols and shared what Christmas means to those in the congregation. I did not know how this gentleman would respond. Walking home after the service, he relieved my fears by saying how positive his experience was. In fact he was glowing; "For over forty years," he said, "I have lived on this earth; and for sure I have heard these carols sung before many times. But tonight I truly heard them for the first time". He went home and purchased a great number of CDs of hymns and Christmas carols. He started to investigate the message behind these songs. And the following spring, he made a decision to make the verses in the hymns his prayer to invite Christ into his life. As he grew in his faith, understanding fully the significance of what happened in his heart, he started to experience the joy that is sung of at Christmas time even in the midst of darkness. He began to experience peace despite the turmoil of life, and began to see his life and his wealth from a completely different vantage point.
What did he hear? What was this life transforming message that he received and appropriated in his life? Was it simply an aesthetic experience? If it was, it would not have lasted and he would have had to search for more and more experiences. In fact, I know it was not just an aesthetic experience, because he also took to heart the reality behind the words that follow the line above, "...no ear may hear His coming, but, in this world of sin, Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in." He not only began to see the greatness of God but also made the realization that his heart is "this world of sin".The materialism and hypocrisy we see at Christmas time are, in fact, just the magnification of what is wrong within all of us. Our self-centered hearts so desperately try to find something to fill them, to own, to manipulate for our gain. Even our "good will" can be fleeting, ultimately glorifying not God, but ourselves. For Christians, it is a time of re-focusing on the priorities of life, as well as a time of celebration.
I was so moved by this collector's response to that Christmas Eve service, because four years prior, I had experienced something very similar in the same place. I saw the lives of people at this church to be genuine and authentic. I saw that there was an inexplicable reality there that I had to find to be true or not. As I did, I found a substance of reality that I had been looking for ever since I had become an artist and had become serious about my spiritual side. What my collector friend and I found, drawn by the songs of the angels, was not great ideals, or a beatific vision; but it was the person of Jesus Christ.
From South Street Seaport's wonderful singing chorus tree to "The Messiah" at Lincoln Center, New York City is filled with music about the birth of Christ. But not only that, from the vibrant colors of Ellsworth Kelly at the Guggenheim, to the profundity of Jasper Johns' works at the MOMA, art will demand that we listen to the mystery of which the writer of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" wrote. Art speaks silently, and mysteriously and we need to listen to the voice by quieting our hearts. Art has in common with many of the world religions the way in which it extols silence. Ivan Karp, the ebullient owner of O.K.Harris Gallery, said in a recent television interview that "people are now going to galleries and museums instead of synagogues and churches." Do we not go to cultural events to seek silence and peace? Do we not go to seek a moment of time where timelessness is captured and lived out?
And yet, silence and peace, however they are sought, are elusive. If peace is a matter of escaping from the world, rather than embracing the world and human experiences, then it is not the Peace that these carols sing about. The world's suffering, and our heart-aches, will not go away by avoiding them. The "silence" that the hymn speaks of comes not from escaping, but from embracing the "wondrous gift." Christianity is unique because it claims both the silence and the joy, both the secret quietude and the stillness; the loud proclamation and the angelic shout at the same time. No other religion claims this paradox. And yet, this Christmas, this paradox of joy and peace must fill our hearts in order for us to experience the reality and peace of God in our lives.
Recently, an artist friend of mine, who turned to Christ after many years of struggle said, "Before I became a Christian, I was afraid to feel...I didn't want to make myself so vulnerable to the world, and consequently, my heart became harder and harder and my art started to die." Now, he said, he sheds tears every day. Why? "I am alive..." he said, "I am alive in Christ." You see, he is experiencing both the silence of peace and the proclamation of joy at the same time. He has come to embrace, and be embraced by, the living gift.
Are we not afraid to feel fully, to truly take in the reality of the world? How many of us shy away from being vulnerable? For the artist in you, this fear will lead to the death of your art and ultimately, the death of your true being. Art, by definition, must confront and embrace experience. Even supposing we succeed in our craft to experience life, we still struggle even more to find that completeness of experience in our personal lives. The world deceives us; we deceive ourselves. We are afraid to be vulnerable, because in our hearts lies the "world of sin" that we care not to admit is there.
The Bible tells us that Christ was not only truly God, but he was truly human as well. In fact he is the only true human being who has ever walked on this earth. He was the essence of being. Christ's life was a life of vulnerability. He lay in the manger, naked and vulnerable. Later, he would amaze the religious priests by actually touching the sick, living the life of a homeless person and spending time with the "sinners" and outcasts of society. He shed tears of anger when his friend Lazarus died, revealing how much the fallenness of the world grieved him. And he was truly naked and vulnerable at the cross, taking on the shame that you and I are so afraid of. He was not afraid to show love when he fully knew that this love would cost him his life; instead of us embracing his love, we would reject it, and ultimately betray him (Peter betrayed him three times...how many more times have we betrayed him?). In our darkness, we desire silence from God rather than the silence in God that allows us to hear his voice, the voice of joy and peace. We would rather kill the joy than pay the cost of peace that comes from the cross, and our betrayal hurt him because Christ felt more deeply than any of us.You see, he was sinless and therefore fully, and truly, alive. He was crushed, as the prophet Isaiah foretold some 500 years prior to Christ's birth, for our iniquities.
Art cannot be truth itself, nor can art replace this essence of being. Art can only point to Christ who claimed "I am the way, the truth and the life"(John 14:6). Christmas carols are not just songs. They are more than "art". They are too audacious to be merely aesthetic. They are invitations to invite the Creator God to dwell in our hearts. God has promised to transform you and me, if we give our lives to him. Fullness of experience comes by making our lives vulnerable to Christ. But paradoxically, God's peace propels us into the world, rather than causing us to escape from the world. As we quiet our hearts before God, we hear, by faith, the voices of angels shouting for joy through the silence. And those trumpet sounds penetrate all the earth, transforming our vision. Christmas is historic evidence of heaven touching the earth when Christ, by being vulnerable to the world, transformed our essence of being.
If you visit the churches listed below this season, you will see and talk with people who are experiencing the true reality of Christmas. I assure you, they will be the first to admit that they are not "there" yet. But they would tell you that it is not perfection that counts with God, but the direction of where your heart and life are pointing.
Are you "alive" this Christmas? You can be. Remember that, "where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in." This "living gift" is yours to receive and open. That is the good news brought to us by the babe in the manger, the epitome of joy and peace, the essence of being.
Copyright Makoto Fujimura. Used by permission.
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