A while ago I wrote about a Christmas in the Sahara; a lost place far from the hubbub of the holidays in places cold and clean. A Muslim place which did not consider Jesus or His condescension to meet us where He had to, where we were to be found and to journey with us for a season in an effort to show us the way, to save us from ourselves – though the paths are hard and we are certainly a stubborn lot. But time flies: and I realize it must have been seven years ago as I now write this, another Christmas entry, having moved on leaving behind a nostalgia gently cradling my little boy and a frail peace dangling upon a strained hope as I find myself again on a Wednesday Christmas in another lost place, though this one steeped in the gospel – entrenched in the traditions quickened with suffering even before Justinian, before Constantine and the epic organization of our great faith. Cold and kind and at peace with itself, a peace product only of looking our God in the face in gratitude for the little we have and eschewing the envy which is so often used to advance wickedness – inequality they like to call it, those who think not of God and His great gift but instead of what they might successfully take from others.
The animals here are different too – not the donkeys and the camels of the sands but instead the sheep herds, reminding me of a different part of the Christ story; the shepherds. The angels appearing to them and telling them of the arrival of the salvation of mankind, lodged not in a castle or fortress locked away safe and protected but in a drafty manger attended by only an unlikely couple. An inauspicious beginning, to be sure…
The other day I was driving along a crumbling road to an ancient monastery, where the monks still worship God and celebrate Christmas – though time passes and their calling is ridiculed, called foolish as are their vows in an age which thinks only of itself. Along my trek I slowed to drive carefully through a herd of sheep that seemed endless, watched over by the shepherds and their dogs as people have done in this part of the world since long before even Jesus walked the earth. Traditions that don’t die out, though our world has become mechanized and modern and cynical. As the snowflakes came down, the cold wind whipping the storms and the shepherds snuggling deeper into their coats, I imagined what those men – boys probably – must have thought of their nighttime angelic visitors. Why were they chosen to be a part of this greatest of all stories? Hard men, cold and gruff who suffered no foolishness and tolerated not luxury. Why would God have had these men, who talk to nobody, be the witness to the miracle?
Today we speak breathlessly of influencers; meaningless though they are in their banality and oh-so empty of mind. But influence… influential? That is the joyous irony of the Christ story: the people, all the people of the greatest story ever were anti-influencers – as if God was challenging humanity, “You, who dream of virality? Tsk tsk, watch now what I am going to do.” A young woman, her carpenter boyfriend, a group of gruff and silent shepherds all gathered together in a drafty barn. That story went viral – and as I watch the Christmas movies that overtake the airwaves; as the entire American economy in all its might powers itself to deliver upon the promise of magic and mystery; as people who thumb their nose at God return – if only for one night – to render homage to that tiny baby I can only chuckle with some satisfaction. And as I sit here in this most lost place of all, rarely considered, I marvel at that unbroken thread fine as a spiderweb that holds suspended the connection with the ancient stories that endure despite the rising and falling of empire, smug and self-assured and so very brittle. And there is peace in that, for those who know how to look for it.
So Merry Christmas, you who read this – and thank you. Because these are times to be grateful indeed for our prosperity and our freedom to live in faith and write about our Jesus who came so long ago and yet still endures today.