All Is Calm, All Is Bright--Or Is It?
All Is Calm, All Is Bright–Or Is It? by Rev. L. John Gable
December 18, 2016
In the past several weeks I have heard several different people tell stories about inopportune breakdowns: ovens going out on Thanksgiving Day, water heaters leaking for months in unattended condos, furnaces going cold in homes filled with guests. Surely Father Josef Mohr could have chimed in to tell the story of the time the church organ went out on Christmas Eve day.
The year was 1818 and Father Mohr was the priest in the little village of Oberndorf in the heart of the Austrian Alps. Apparently mice had done some inopportune chewing and there was no way an organ builder could get to his little parish in time to fix the instrument for services that evening. If there was to be music at the Christmas Eve service something else would have to be done. So Father Mohr went to visit his good friend and singing companion, Franz Gruber, the young school master for the village, who also served as music director for the parish. Explaining the dilemma the priest gave him a poem he had written some two years before after meditating on the message of the angels: “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” In short time Franz put the poem to music that the two of them could quickly teach to the choir and sing with guitar at the service that evening. Together they wrote what came to be perhaps one of the best known and best loved of the Christmas carols, Silent Night.
“Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” That is how we picture the birth of our Lord, isn’t it? A peaceful, idyllic setting. That’s how the carols sing of this Holy birth, with the brilliance of the star, the song of the angels and the visit of the shepherds. As Martin Luther writes in another beloved carol, “The cattle are lowing, the poor Baby wakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.” That’s how the artists have painted and sculpted that Holy night long ago in the little village of Bethlehem, “how still we see thee lie.” If we let our minds wander we can almost picture that first Christmas morning like we do the Nativity set on the mantle in the living room. All is calm, all is bright…or is it?
Suddenly we are awakened from our peaceful slumber by a healthy dose of reality. It is dawn and a cow kicks over a milk can, a donkey brays, and the sleeping child awakens with a scream. There is a knock on the door bringing two Roman soldiers demanding some kind of identification and a payment of taxes to the Emperor. The sore back and the aching head remind an exhausted Mary and a frustrated Joseph that there was no room for them in the inn, and the mattress of hay has the distinct smell of barn animals.
The angelic chorus from the night before suddenly changes its tune, no longer announcing Good News, but now the disturbing news that King Herod feels threatened and is furious over the rumor that a Child-King has been born. The angel commands Joseph, “Get up, take the child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child to destroy Him.” So there is the rapid exodus to Egypt and then the tragic news of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.
The Nativity on the mantle is suddenly in disarray. Upon closer examination you see that Joseph’s nose is chipped from the time one of the children knocked him off the table, and Mary is missing a foot. Come to think of it, weren’t there three Wisemen? One of them must have gotten lost in a move.
Oh how we want to paint a beautiful, peaceful picture of Christmas, then and now, but the numbers just don’t add up. The world wasn’t an idyllic place on that first Christmas morning, and we know all too well that it isn’t so today. The world into which Jesus was born was a harsh, cruel place, and it seems little has changed. We sing, “All is calm, all is bright”, but in reality all is not as we would like it to be in this world, much less in our community, our homes, perhaps even in our hearts. So what does the Christmas story have to say about that?
I have been to the Holy Land twice in the past several years. I have visited the Shepherd’s Field and the Church of the Nativity (which happens to sit on Manger Square at the intersection of Manger and Star streets). At the conclusion of my first visit I stayed an additional five days alone in Bethlehem which you know is in the West Bank, in Palestinian territory, at the Bethlehem Bible College, reading, studying, reflecting on the experience and visiting with residents there. Christians today are a minority in the West Bank and nearly half of them live in Bethlehem. The vast majority of Bethlehem residents are Muslim. Every day I walked the streets of the city, visiting sites and entering shops, and never felt any anxiety or concern for my own safety. “O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.”
Bethlehem though is a city suffering severe economic depression after years of conflict which has curtailed the once steady stream of tourists. Though only 6 miles or so from Jerusalem there is a 30-foot-tall wall that divides Palestine from Israel as it meanders the serpentine border that separates those two nations. In order to cross from one side to the other passports must be shown, vehicles inspected and reasons for crossing given. Young Israeli soldiers – 18, 19, 20 years old – stand guard at street corners with automatic weapons in hand watching warily as people go about their daily business. Just a block or two from where I was staying is a Palestinian Refugee camp, in existence since 1947, not far from the site of Rachel’s tomb, the wife of the Old Testament Patriarch Jacob, mother of Joseph, also the site where rocks and bottles and bullets are launched when tensions run high. Every year church leaders in Bethlehem have to determine whether it is safe enough to hold Christmas services in the Church of the Nativity, the place marking Jesus’ birth. All is not calm and bright in Bethlehem.
Not so very far away in Syria the battle for Aleppo rages on, displacing people and causing one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time. Distrust is rampant and tensions run high throughout that entire region. All is not calm and bright in the Middle East. Nor would we say all is calm and bright in our nation, our city, this neighborhood, perhaps even in our homes or in our hearts.
Oh, we want it to be just like the carols tell it and the paintings depict it, but for many, it just isn’t that way in reality, is it?
Believe me, my purpose is not one of myth bashing about the first Christmas or shock therapy about life as it really is today. Rather I am trying to move us toward a deeper, truer understanding of the meaning of Christmas, the necessity of Christmas.
If the story of the nativity of our Lord is just a nostalgic way to escape from the realities of our world and of our lives for a season, then it really isn’t worth the effort. If all we are doing is trying to create the facade that “all is calm, all is bright” in the name of religious tradition only to be blasted by the harsh realities of life when we leave this place, then perhaps the critics of religion would be right in saying, “it is only a placebo.”
But, friends, I don’t believe that, and I trust neither do you. The Christmas story is not one of idyllic escapism. It is one of hope and promise and truth. The whole purpose of Christmas, and by that I mean, the whole purpose of God’s coming to us in the birth of Jesus, is exactly because we live in a world of war and sin, of brokenness and disappointment. Christmas is the story of God recognizing the harsh reality of human life as it really is and then doing something about it. It is the story of redemption as God visits us with the gift of salvation. In this birth we see God’s radical and unique intervention into human history, the upper story invading the lower story, God’s story breaking in to our story in the birth of His Son, our Savior, in order to rescue and redeem us, to save us and set us free from the sins and ills which bind us.
If all was calm and all was bright in this world and in our lives, then there would have been no need for the birth of the Christ child, or the cross, or the resurrection. If all was as it should be we would have no need of a Savior. Don’t you see, it is exactly because we live in a world of poverty and disease, of war and conflict, of prejudice and injustice that Jesus had to come. It is exactly because our lives are broken by sin and selfishness, by addictions and abuse, that the Child of Bethlehem had to be born.
There is a stark and perhaps startling reality to the telling of the Christmas story in Matthew’s Gospel. The story of the rage of King Herod and the slaughter of the innocents lies in stark contrast to the peaceful serenity of the Holy birth, but it’s telling is absolutely necessary because, as theologian Dale Bruner puts it, “Herod is not dead. Herod lives on, in us. Original sin continues – in us, the People of God (and not just in the enemies of God). The exaggerated ambitions, pretensions, self-centeredness, greed for position, grudge against God, guile, and finally human cruelty and insensitivity, which are all the fruit of our war with God – all these live still in us and must be contended with until the last judgment. Human nature is still the battleground between two great kings – Herod and the Child. We know who overcomes, but meanwhile the battle rages and Herod is here as a warning to the Christian hearer of who he or she, in no little measure, still is.” The world needs a Redeemer. You and I need a Savior, exactly because all is not calm, all is not bright.
For centuries before this Holy birth the prophets announced the coming of the Messiah, the Chosen One of God. Israel’s faithful looked forward with hope to the fulfillment of the promise of God’s salvation. The angel announced to Joseph, “Mary will bear a son, and you are to name Him Jesus, for He will save His people from their sin.” Salvation, redemption, restoration- these are the purpose of His coming. God was making good on His promise and working out His plan of salvation through the birth of the One we call the Christ.
Friends, this is the truth of the Christmas story. In the birth of Jesus we see God’s response to our most critical need, the conflict and confusion, the sin and brokenness which affects our world and infests our lives. As we meditate on the beautiful story of Jesus’ birth, with its “All is calm, All is Bright” quality we should not be lulled in to forgetting the reason Jesus had to come: to set us free from the bondage of sin and the penalty of death. The real purpose of Christmas is not to provide us with a temporary, seasonal escape from reality, but to fill us with hope and a promise that creates a new reality in our lives, and one day in our world.
The message of Christmas is one of redemption and salvation. It is Good News of great Joy exactly because in our world, in our homes, in our hearts, all is not calm and bright; but all can be well, because of the birth of Emmanuel, God with us. Amen.