(I wrote this in December, 2009)
Say what you will about cold weather, crowds, and snow or the threat thereof grinding the streets to a halt, but I kind of love Chicago in December. I love the concerts of sacred music for free or cheap, the Bavarian Christmas market at Daley Plaza (with offsetting public symbols of Judaism and Islam, just in case), the idea that I could ice-skate if I wanted to, and churches bringing their A game to worship and decoration.
Saturday found Soren and I doing our part upholding the manly art of Advent church decorating while Mama was enjoying a well-deserved day with friends. Rather, we drove the eighteen miles in to church only to find that I had left every toddler-oriented item in its bag at home. Another round-trip later, we got to work untangling the dead strings of lights from these two huge wreaths that needed to be hoisted up the side of the bell tower. More accurately, I tried to do that while keeping Soren from stomping on the lights that did work. Some volunteers had already lowered the dead light bulbs from the catwalk above our high-vaulted ceiling to be replaced–a catwalk, be it noted, accessible only through a little square hole thirty or so feet above the choir loft. Old-fashioned candle stands had been clamped onto the ends of some of the pews. The tree was up and the whole chancel was resplendent in Advent blue.
It turns out that untangling two huge honking wreaths, re-tangling them with working lights, and hoisting them up the side of a church tower is a bigger job than I expected. I had figured on wrapping up at church around noon, with plenty of time to watch Soren play in Wicker Park proper, which he adores, and make it down to the Christmas Market to buy a few things for Soren and Kerry’s St. Nicholas Day shoes, before coming back for the concert of the Wicker Park Choral Singers at church at 3pm. Needless to say, despite the best efforts of all involved, things did not work out that way, and I spent most of the two o’clock hour trying to get an overtired toddler to fall asleep before the concert began.
At the third verse of ‘Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,’ my precocious exhaustion with the season hit me, napping toddler in arms:
Hail the heav’n born Prince of Peace
Hail the Son of Righteousness
Light and life to all he brings
Ris’n with healing in his wings
How easy it is to forget amidst plans for the family and for preaching and for special church events that even we, the pastors, need Christmas so very badly. And not the season of frantic busy-ness, coerced generosity and mandatory good cheer, but the gift of divine hope: that there is light, life, peace, righteousness, and healing in that birth, that mighty, humble Event we celebrate anew each year.
In fact I wonder whether the insane stress of the season and the spit-polished brass of the whole thing don’t testify to our fear that such hope is not real enough to celebrate on its own. As the liturgical season of Advent wanes in our culture, “the holiday season” only grows more punishingly significant. Our economy, our charitable appeals, our social calendars, and our cultural institutions all depend on it. There are worse things. Our world would be worse off without these six weeks of obligatory largesse, I suppose, a dreary circle of months broken up only by taxes and patriotic holiday barbecues. All the sadder, then, that this time of year seems to amplify the unhappinesses to which we are all given.
On Friday night I sat down with W.H. Auden for the first time in far too long. His ‘For the Time Being’ is still a great re-telling of the Christmas story. I used to read it every Advent. “The Vision of the Shepherds” is particularly poignant, somehow:
…behind the spontaneous joy of life
There is always a mechanism to keep going,
And someone like us is always there…
But to behave like a cogwheel
When one knows one is no such thing,
Merely to add to a crowd with one’s passionate body,
Is not a virtue. What is real
About us all is that each of us is waiting.
That is why we are able to bear
Ready-made clothes, second-hand art and opinions
And being washed and ordered about;
That is why you should not take our conversation
Too seriously, nor read too much
Into our songs; their purpose is mainly to keep us
From watching the clock all the time.
For, though we cannot say way, we know that something
Will happen: What we cannot say…
But one day or
The next we shall hear the Good News.
Auden turned the shepherds into 20th century proletarians, patronized by the right-wing elite and treated as individually dispensable by the left. In the mad demotic rush for status and survival that encompasses everyone between the overclass and the underpass in 21st century America, however, Auden’s shepherds sound to me like Everymen. Most all of us spend some time as a cogwheel (with, ahem, things like blogging as our squeaky little protests to the contrary), as one member of a crowd of wallets or votes or souls, as a clock-watching drone chucking pencils into the ceiling tiles. Time and space make us all anonymous and our little anxieties and failures and horrors just get folded into the generality of things. Unless we really are waiting for something–something only crudely prefigured by a pair of shoes stuffed with treats, or wreaths shimmering with disposable lights, or songs sung so perfectly that time itself seems brought to heel. Unless our feeble generosities plead for us, and unless Something answers with a generosity so total and final that nothing can overcome it.