In 2014, I wrote about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Christmas Bells” in the context of an active shooter situation at a mall near my home in Portland, Oregon. The day after the shooting, I drove down to the mall, watching the police activity, the media frenzy, and the stunned onlookers standing in small groups still trying to grasp what had just happened.
As I drove around the mall, the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” came over the radio.
That song has stuck with me ever since.
The thought of church bells piercing the grit, darkness, and violence of the times and proclaiming the arrival of a promised Messiah is burned into my mind.
Especially at the conclusion of each of the every subsequent year since.
Since 2014, there have been multiple mass shootings or murders via other means which now only hardens our hearts because we are so quick to take advantage of it politically. We have also experienced two presidential elections, which have done little more than erode our trust and respect of the office. We have experienced a pandemic which locked us into mind-numbing solitude, turned each other into enemies, and decimated our trust in public health and education.
This last year, America entered into recession. Inflation is at a decades-high level, and at one point, gas prices hit an all-time high. The powers-that-be responded not by acknowledging or owning the recession, but by changing the definition of the word.
Life has been hard since the 2020 pandemic. And every year, when December arrives, I find myself wanting to allow the darkness of the prior year to engulf me.
The last several months have been fairly difficult and overwhelming for me personally. There was no life-changing catastrophe. Instead, it has felt more like death by a thousand paper cuts.
The inflation-that-supposedly-isn’t has depleted our savings account and left us carrying a credit card balance for the first time in our 25-year marriage. Our house had a power surge during a summer thunderstorm, resulting in a fried underground cable and requiring an overhead replacement. Our refrigerator, washing machine, and laptop computer all went out. Both of us needed long-delayed replacements for our eyeglasses, and we were informed our dangerously bald tires, which we’d hoped to use through the winter, could easily blow out before Thanksgiving.
Then, we were told that one of our trees, the one closest to the house and garage, had developed serious cracks in the trunk and has officially become what the expert called a “liability.” Finally, our two senior dachshunds both developed incontinence (one from old age, the other due to Cushing’s disease). We spend much of our waking time chasing them around the house, cleaning up dribbles and mopping the floor.
All this unfolded in just six weeks.
As December arrived, it became very tempting to just ignore Advent altogether. My life felt like total chaos, and I was too exhausted to think about the meaning of the season. Hiding out in my room and binging TV shows became my refuge. I just wanted to focus on my own woes.
But Emmanuel won’t let that happen.
When light steps into the darkness, the darkness goes away. Darkness cannot win in a battle with light.
Likewise, light does not remove the person from the darkness, but removes the darkness from the person.
Therein lies the peace promised by Emmanuel, the God With Us.
We are not rescued from the darkness. We still have to work our way out of the mess. But Advent reminds us that God himself stepped into the chaos loosed by the serpent.
In Genesis 3, the serpent sets out to undo the order and beauty of creation, described just two chapters earlier. At first, his plan appears to work when Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
However, when God confronts the three players in the Garden, he slips in one promise of hope. To the serpent, he says that the woman’s offspring “will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
The Christmas story still speaks the angels’ message of “peace on earth.”
We have the peace of knowing that God’s got this, that he sees the mess we’ve made of his creation and has made it right.
He sees that my death-by-a-thousand paper-cuts will ultimately glorify him.
My duty is to release my stresses to him—daily, continually. It’s not easy, but it is necessary.
During this second week of Advent, acknowledge the darkness around you. Think of the chaos in your life. Reflect on the arrival of the Prince of Peace—the infant who entered our world, our stories, calming the storms in our hearts and souls by commanding, “Peace, be still.”
You will make it simply because he is with you.
And that is the promise of peace in the Advent season.
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