I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus my Saviour did come for to die
For poor on'ry people like you and like I,
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.
(Song by folklorist John Niles, inspired by a fragment of a folk hymn)
Christmas traditions run deep for many of us, yet despite the continuity provided by certain traditions, each year’s Christmas experience is unique. This year’s Christmas for at least a good chunk of Americans seems somewhat different as we are living through what feels like a new sort of moment in our nation’s history. The sense of instability has shown itself in recent days with a deep plunge in the stock market (heading toward possibly the worst December for the market since the Great Depression), a government shutdown, and the impending departure of Defense Secretary Mattis. Add the elements of environmental instability to this, with little encouraging news from either the scientific or the political spheres, and it’s no surprise that something feels different this Christmas.
How any of this will play out is unclear. We have solid science to help us see what will happen if we continue on our current path of environmental destruction, but even that is uncertain as the future direction of the human actions that have gotten us into this crisis are unpredictable and the exact nature and timing of global warming’s feedback loops are still only partially known.
The American social and political traditions and the environmental stability that felt like givens to those of us born in the middle of the twentieth century are now unreliable. Having lost our way, we are wandering, searching, hoping for something we can’t quite envision.
The Christmas story is about hope, about light shining in the darkness. Mary’s song — our Gospel for Advent IV — reminds us that God shows mercy for people who are poor and oppressed, that those who are suffering in the present moment have real hope that a more just order will be restored.
The Christmas story is also about wonder — the wonder of God being born among us, the wonder of a young woman receiving a visit from an angel and of a new baby with seemingly ordinary parents being seen as a King, but telling us when he is grown that his kingdom is not like other kingdoms. There is starlight, angels singing to terrified shepherds, and other people amazed at what the shepherds told them. And there is Mary, treasuring the words of the shepherds and, as Luke tells it, pondering them in her heart.
The Christmas story is about experiencing wonder as we wander toward the Light. Wonder isn’t the whole story — Mary went through the very real experience of pregnancy and childbirth along with those reflective and even mystical experiences — but perhaps it’s a necessary ingredient that we neglect at our own peril.
The wonder of Christmas was brought home for me yesterday when I went to see my young grandchildren in their congregation’s Christmas pageant. My three-year-old grandson was an angel, with the only directions being to hang around with the older angels and be where they were. But despite the efforts of the grown-ups in his life and the influence of Mr. Rogers in teaching the difference between real life and make-believe, the idea of people in costumes pretending vs. seeing the real thing is still shaky for a three-year-old, shaky enough for the enacted wonder of the story to become real wonder. When Mary brought out a baby doll that had been hidden away and put the baby in the manger, my grandson looked and looked at the baby, hovering near the manger and watching over the baby Jesus. His sense of wonder was evident and contagious. The story is still new for him, and that helped me hear the story in a new way as well.
There are many occasions for wonder in our own daily lives. We have seen an amazing moon the past couple of evenings, a moon with a special glow. That science can explain why this moon looks different from others doesn’t take away from its beauty or its ability to expand our thoughts beyond our ourselves and our daily tasks. There are glimpses of joy on the faces of people of all ages; there are the small gray and brown birds that appear from hidden places to feed at feeders, the occasional sound of a wren, and the quiet of fields and woods far from town, and the winter skies seen from those same rural places. There is ice forming and melting, there are snowflakes falling like little stars, and the sight of friends and family who have been away from home. Wonder — and its companion, joy — are there for the noticing.
Wondering at the world around us and finding joy in God’s creation forms our hearts to love the world. We care for what we love, and the more connected we feel to other people and all of creation, the more easily we will see the way to live whole and holy lives even when the world feels unstable and fragmented. The world needs people who are whole and holy; God needs us to do the work of mercy, justice, repair, and love that will lead to a better world for all people and all living things.
May Christmas wonder be yours during this Christmas!