Following Jesus

Slow Down, It’s Christmas

December 22, 2016 by

a young girl looking at some lighted candles

Every December, despite the unyielding regularity of the calendar, people sigh and say that they can’t believe how fast another year has flown by, and that it’s already Christmas again. Oddly, it’s a sentiment that seems to put many of us under stress, even as we make sure to mention that we are looking forward to “the holidays.”

Or maybe it isn’t odd. Precisely because it’s supposed to be the high point of the year, the approach of Christmas seems to exert all sorts of unwanted pressures on us, especially in regard to financial and social obligations.

Most of us will readily admit that the perfect family gathering, the perfect gift, and the perfect holiday event cannot be organized or arranged, let alone bought. And yet, year after year, we still succumb, wearily chalking up the events we “had” to attend last Christmas, and figuring out how we’re possibly going to fit in everything that’s already planned for this one.

So the question is this: how do we wade through the thicket of preparations that have come to define Christmas? How do we sift through all the fuss and bustle and re-find the community that everyone’s presumably looking for? How do we recover joy?

First, it might help to slow down. We need to stop running from one pressing (often self-imposed) task to another, and take time to be quiet. This is simpler than it sounds, which is why most of us are always pushing it off for tomorrow, but it’s also a discipline.

When did you last sit down for a whole hour with a book or a favorite recording, or take a walk with your spouse? When was the last time you played a game with (or read a story to) a child? How many years has it been since you watched a sunrise? Of course you’re too busy. Who isn’t? But why not make time – why not get up an hour earlier (or go to bed an hour later) at least once before Christmas? You do it all the time, for other reasons.

If this sounds selfish, it isn’t. As long as you’re under stress, you’re no good to anyone else, and you certainly won’t find the inner peace you need to make room for God, for Christmas. As the old German mystic Angelus Silesius admonishes, “Were Christ born a thousand times in Bethlehem, and not in thee, thou wouldst still be eternally forlorn.”

Such a birth doesn’t just require inactivity. Like a biological birth, it presupposes active, focused waiting, alertness, and preparation. It demands the willingness to sort through (or tune out, or even just turn off) the myriad voices making competing claims on our attention through the course of the day. It means clearing away the clutter to make space for that most essential voice deep within us, allowing it to make itself heard, and then actually listening to it.

When this happens, not only our hearing but our vision will clear, and we will rediscover what we once knew, but long ago forgot: how good and beautiful the world is, despite everything that is wrong.

In spite of political crises and natural catastrophes; in spite of war and hunger and evil and unrest, there is still goodness and beauty. In the sound of wind blowing through trees. In the glory of a sunset at the end of a long grey day. In the smile of a baby. In the laughter of a loved one.

Sometimes these gifts border on the miraculous: a sudden breakthrough in a conflict you had given up hope of ever resolving; an unexpected opening and a way forward where, just yesterday, you saw only obstacles and walls.

In learning to perceive such things and acknowledge and cherish them, we can learn to see the world in a new way – the way we saw it as a child. Instead of feeling harried and worn out all the time, we will find ourselves buoyed up by gratitude and a sense of wonder. This is not a matter of willed optimism, but a matter of hope, and the readiness to tend and water it wherever it sends up shoots, whether in our own lives, or (just as important) in others.

To approach life – and Christmas – in this way is to find that, despite all that is routine and hollow and commercial and crass, there is still plenty in it that is unassailable and unimpeachable – plenty that truly is perfect.

My wife’s great-grandmother Emmy Arnold once wrote:

Even though Christmas is exploited for business profit and used for selfish purposes; even though the meaning of the celebration is often corrupted; in spite of all this, we all feel the impulse at this time of year to think of others, to show love to others, to be there for others. This itself shows what the joy of anticipation is. It is the feeling of human solidarity, the exultance of joy in one another, the certainty of mutual love.
The brightness and fragrance of a living tree under which gifts are laid, the stars in the night sky, the shining of Christmas lights – all these are signs of light breaking into the darkness around us: the darkness of unrest, of family discord, of class struggle, of competitive jealousies and of national hatreds. Here is light and warmth, life and love.

Those who believe this – who possess such faith – possess something that has power to enliven and refresh them even at their weariest. It is not like the Christmas tree or holiday wreath that temporarily brightens a drab corner but gets tossed on the compost heap come January, because it has dried out. This faith is something that works from within, releasing energy and strength and the courage to stand firm, even in a storm. It will bear you up through the darkest days of the year. It will carry you not just through Christmas and into the new year, but through life itself.

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About the author

Chris and Bea Zimmerman

Chris Zimmerman

Chris and his wife, Bea, live at The Mount, a Bruderhof in Esopus, New York.

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