As we were preparing the service for Lessons & Carols this year, I pondered the purpose of our tradition of 100+ years. It's certainly a chance to experience gorgeous music, but what does it mean that we've returned to this well again and again, year after year? Why do we hold Lessons & Carols so close to our collective heart?
Then I slowly settled on the lessons for Sunday, deciding quite what admixture of scripture and more contemporary witness would help fill out the morning. (As much as I loved what we did last year, we can hardly say that we're in the same place--or that any Christmas is every quite the same as the last.) One of them by American poet, essayist, and farmer Wendell Berry particularly brought me up short, marveling at the ways it invited me into a new kind of perception. Here it is, "VI" from his book A Timbered Choir:
Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away t he thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the child in the straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe, in light
That lights them from no source we see,
An April morning’s light, the air
Around them joyful as a choir.
We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world, the pale daylight
Coming just as before, our chores
To do, the cattle all awake,
Our own white frozen breath hanging
In front of us; and we are here
As we have never been before,
Sighted as not before, our place
Holy, although we knew it not.
The bucolic setting and trappings of a farmer's life are typical for Berry, and they help to set the scene within a humble, almost primal, example of human existence. In fact, the earthiness of the poem echoes the earthiness of the nativity accounts in the synoptic gospels. It emphasizes not only the personal routine of the poem's narrative, but the reality that we as human beings are people of routine. We are defined by the deep grooves that we have worn into our society, into our communities, into our own personal lives. It's not unlike that "latch thrown open countless times"--we are often well past thinking about what we're doing or why we're doing any particular activity. Thus, even as we live millennia later in a world that the people of the New Testament would find almost impossible to even imagined, we also live "in the world it happened in when it first happened." Often times, we are even treading along the exact same grooves.
However, God has a habit of upending us, unsettling us from the routine of our lives so that we can recognize ourselves and our surroundings anew. In seminary, we often called it the "in-breaking" of the Divine. And Christmas is all about that celestial in-breaking. Even as people with a long, long scriptural history, it was almost impossible for the Late Classical Judaeans to imagine the messiah entering into the mundane details of their existence. Even with their accounts, we all too often find it almost impossible to imagine. But God became human just the way that you or I are human, unsettling the oldest and deepest groove of our existence. That is extraordinary. And that's what Berry is trying to name in his poem. It is difficult to hold onto something so scandalous, something so outside of our day-to-day lives. Thus, we often have to let it go, to largely forget about it, so that we can go about our obligations.
That's why we need Christmas every year, and that's why we come back to Lessons & Carols every year. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ is too amazing, too life-changing to ever really let go. So we, individually and as a community, try to remind ourselves again and again. We give ourselves the chance for a new beginning every year. In the beauty of the music and the wisdom of the lessons, we try to implicitly affirm that maybe we too can be here "as we have never been before." Because we don't have to be only people of routine, we can also be people of the Incarnation. We can seek and name holiness in even the most unexpected places of our lives. So, wherever you find yourself this Christmas Eve, listen, and listen well. Because God is inviting you into newness of life--perhaps in the midst of your family, perhaps in the midst of a congregation, perhaps on the street, or perhaps in the quietness of a private commemoration--you just have to be able to set aside the old ways of doing for a moment and enter into it.