In between Christmas and Lent is the liturgical season called Ordinary Time. The tinsel and lights have been packed away. The presents have been unwrapped, the New Years' resolutions have been made (and, quite possibly, already broken). The snow from our white Christmas has melted and a stark bleakness takes its place, as if the world is coming down from its high, waking up after the peace-love-hope-joy bender we went on over the holidays and won't go on again until next December.
It feels like the world has woken up from a dream state, and now we're reckoning with reality, and retracting our optimism.
Family Christmas letters gushed, "Let there be peace on earth!" but we don't want that peace to be our responsibility. We want other people in other places to make personal sacrifices that deescalate conflict instead of escalating it, but we don't want to accept the apology of a loved one who was clearly in the wrong.
We wonder why, for Pete's sake, Israel and Palestine can't just shake hands and come to a sustainable compromise. But we don't want to go through mediation to salvage a marriage on the rocks.
We marveled at a God who loved the world enough to send Emanuel. And in theory, we love the world, too. Except the neighbor whose dogs bark incessantly and the homeless kid who keyed our car and the coworker whose breath smells like sardines and the mom who screams at her kids in the grocery store and the convicted sex offender and the cranky flight attendant and the woman at the coffee shop who's talking loudly on her cell phone and will not.shut.up.
During Advent we also proclaimed Joy to the World. We sang all the verses to that song -- and we sang them enthusiastically, too, and we really meant what we were saying. And then it sunk in that we were advocating for a steady, immovable state that we live in regardless of circumstances, rooted in a deep connection with God. And while we were at the mall the day after Christmas, we decided we'd trade in joy and get elusive, dopamine-spiking happiness instead. And, while we were at it, we also traded the ugly cardigan from Aunt Mary for the yoga pants we really wanted.
We resign ourself to the fact that hope is a sappy emotion that silly people indulge during the holidays. But when the last Christmas bulb is packed, we return to rational, realistic beings who know that hope is just a mirage that provides temporary relief to dehydrated people. It's a refreshing idea, but in the end, it only exists in our imaginations.
While I was contemplating the post-Advent slide most of us experience during Ordinary Time, I was remembering one of my favorite Christmas carols that I learned in junior high choir.
Still, Still, Still.
In typical Victorian style, the haunting, high melody memorializes the arrival of baby Jesus into a quiet, awestruck world. The winter sky with the star and singing angels. The glowing Holy Family. The snow that fell silently and blanketed the pastoral landscape.
Still, Still, Still.
And I remembered that the actual arrival of baby Jesus was probably noisy and chaotic. Joseph was probably really mad that no one had made room for his pregnant wife to give birth in a bed. The shepherds were rough blue collar workers with subpar personal hygiene habits who were inarticulate and really confused.
But it was here, in the midst of the noise and the cattle and the imperfect characters, that God made his entrance into the world. And it was here, in a barn, that God promised the world peace and love and joy and hope.
Now, as we drive forward and watch Advent grow smaller and smaller in our rearview mirror, we remember that God is here.
We remember that the peace he promised is available to all of us who love him enough to give up our own agenda and rights and be reconciled with others.
We remember that God loved the world in an unbelievably sacrificial way -- and out of worship, he calls us to reflect love to every single person on the planet. Even the annoying, messed up, frustrating, 'unlovable' ones.
We accept God's offer to trade in tangible happiness for intangible, unalterable joy that rejoices in the good times and perseveres in the bad.
And we live in his promise of hope. That this world is not all there is. That one day suffering will end. That we can partner with God to literally bring heaven down to earth by living like Jesus did.
The trappings of Christmas are gone, but Emanuel is still here. He is still working. And he is still offering everything we celebrated during Advent this year.
Still, Still, Still.