The Christmas season sure is complicated. Before you can even start on the theology you have to thread your way through all the different things going on. Christmas is really about three things going on at once: you have the annual Celebration of the American Economy where everyone spends like there’s no tomorrow because the whole national economy depends on it. You’re positively unpatriotic if you don’t spend money you don’t have to give people you don’t even like things they don’t even need. Then there’s the Annual Family Reunion where people travel miles to return to their family of origin to submit themselves to the usual triggers that will land them back into therapy. And, there in this pile of frantic activities, usually jumbled down at the bottom, is poor little baby Jesus who never asked for any of this.
Christmas wasn’t even celebrated by the early Christians who should have known more about Jesus than we do, being closer to his life chronologically speaking. Christmas was a Huge No Big Deal to them. Easter was the main event to the early Christians, who were actually Jews. (This really is confusing, isn’t it?) But then around the 4th century when the calendar was invented, the church fathers decided to tie Christ’s birthdate to the winter solstice since all the pagans were already celebrating that date. The winter solstice is when the night is the longest it will get and the season cycles around and days become longer. But wouldn’t you know it: the Christians picked up the pagan’s bad habits of celebrating themselves into a drunken stupor. So the church ended up banning Christmas celebration altogether around the 17th century. After an interval of lying low the season has gradually climbed back into public revelry and we’re right back into our old habits. Then you throw Santa Claus into the mix and get the kids all stirred up over getting presents even though it’s somebody else’s birthday……and it just really becomes frenetic.
The season starts around the end of September and builds over the months. But things finally settle down by Christmas Eve. By that time the kids know it’s going to happen. Mothers and Fathers realize that if they’ve left anything undone then it’s just not going to happen. This small act of surrender helps quell the panic a bit. It also helps that by this time everyone is pretty mellow from the eggnog.
So Christmas Eve is where it all changes. Peace on Earth arrives. You’ve got about a five minute window before you step into Christmas Morning and the let-down that inevitably comes. No matter how great the number of gifts, how tasty the meal, how successful the sporting events on TV, it’s still not enough to live up to three months of hype.
We have a five minute window to connect with God.
And that is precisely the moment when church music is at its best. With some people it’s the sound of the church bells pealing. Or the quiet notes of Silent Night. Or the choir singing O Come All Ye Faithful.
With me it’s the sound of the Zimbelstern. Our church organist plays it just for me. I’m convinced of it.
You can look this instrument up on Google. Sometimes it’s called cymbalstern. But that’s way too many details for such a simple sound. The sound is made by tiny bells and tiny clappers run in a random pattern. The effect is like sleigh bells on a snowy evening. Or angels dancing in the snow. It’s such a simple sound that your imagination is freed up to hear and see whatever your soul leads you to hear or see. On a cold night it conjures thoughts of frozen air with ice crystals floating about.
My favorite worship service of the year is always the first Thursday of December when the Perkins School of Theology at SMU in Dallas lets loose the Seminary Singers to join voices with the Meadows School of Fine Arts Chorale. And all of this is done inside a Chapel built specifically with acoustics in mind. With a full congregation of people I am convinced are all trained musicians except for me. You can imagine the beauty of the sound. It’s a relaxing worship where someone else is doing all the leadership which is fine because only Michael Hawn is capable of putting together a worship service like this one. I’ve been going to this service for over 15 years now and have only missed twice.
There are two choirs, one in the chancel facing the congregation and one in the balcony behind us. You are surrounded by sound. At the first note of the first hymn when the two choirs join voices with the congregation the sound is pure Heaven. That’s the only way I can describe it. If there was a color for this sound it would be gold or some similar warm relaxing color. The last congregational hymn is always “Hark the Herald.“ Bold notes that bring the beauty of belief into focus.
It’s the sound that makes Christmas for me.
My iTunes was on the fritz for a couple of weeks and I couldn’t get it to sync up with my Christmas music playlist. When everything finally connected and my iPod was able to produce music, I was driving alone in the car. The first song stopped me dead in my tracks. When Judy Collins broke into “O Come All Ye Faithful” it was suddenly Christmas for me. It was one of those five minute Christmas Eve Connection with the Divine.
After all the times I have tried to understand other religions and how they fit together then mourn why we can’t all get along, why we can’t accept and understand other religions, Judy Collins’ voice made me understand clearly for a few seconds that slight tickle of comprehension that floats in the back of my mind. The small nudge of understanding: that in Christianity, God reaches out to mortals in a way that no other religion offers. No other religion offers a resurrection. No other religion has Holy Communion. No other religion claims the promise of John 3:16.
I used to laugh at the fans who brought huge banners to the end zone of football games with that simple notation: “John 3:16” Later, the scoffing died away as I came to understand that it ALL can be explained in that one sentence. For God loved the world enough to send the dearest part of God’s self to sacrifice it for us and all we have to do is believe. God loves us that much. That much.
I have come to understand that it is that simple. I love to study religion and faith. I’ll bet the stack of books I have on that subject would shock us both. And for all my reading and study it is simply this. God loves us.
There is no Christmas without Easter. There is no Easter without love. God loves us that much.
Cue the zimbelstern