“So this is Christmas.” John Lennon’s words have been ringing in my head since I awoke on this Christmas Day in 2015. Today I want to make the phrase a question – So this is Christmas? – like Peggy Lee’s “Is that all there is?” except I don’t feel that cynical. During my morning walk with the dogs, on a gray and very unseasonal day when we’ve had no measurable snow since last winter and the temperature is expected to near fifty, there’s no suggestion of Christmas beyond the lights that were hung with care on a few neighboring houses. The notes of last evening’s Stille Nacht Musik recital and service of lessons and carols have faded, and the day seems eerily quiet, almost empty, as if Christmas were a dream from which I’ve just awakened, and I’m left wondering what difference the day made.
Why would I expect the world to be different today? Christians have been celebrating the Feast of Christ (Christ’s Mass, or Christmas) for roughly 1,700 years – the church didn’t start celebrating it as a holy day until the fourth century – and following every one of those celebrations the world continued with life as usual. Our neighbors up the street who toss their Christmas tree to the curb by December 27 each year maintain a custom that’s well-established in our culture, and even in the church, by letting go of Christmas as quickly as they turn a page on their calendar.
If it’s a different world I hope to find after Christmas, I’m tracking the wrong scent. A line from one of St. Paul’s letters reorients me. “So if anyone is in Christ,” he wrote, “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (2 Cor. 5:17)! The new creation for which I’ve been yearning and waiting along with almost everyone else I know is not an objective reality; it’s a perceptual reality. The world that’s been there all along is still there. I simply – or not so simply, or very simply after all – see it differently. The light shifts, and suddenly I see through the scrim. That kind of seeing is pure gift. There’s nothing I can do to make myself see that way, but traces of pure vision do come on occasion, and I sense what Robert Frost had in mind when he wrote of seeing “beyond the picture, / Through the picture, a something white, uncertain, / Something more of the depths” (“For Once, then, Something”).
If I’m to take Christmas seriously, for what it is – if I’m to take the Incarnation seriously – the celestial city, the new Jerusalem, is right here in these ordinary streets populated by ordinary people with their ordinary problems and prejudices and possibilities. I’ve been preaching that message for more than thirty years and implicitly professing it far longer. On this gray, unseasonal, very ordinary Christmas Day, I see further past the scrim than I have ever seen. And I’m more grateful than I’ve ever been to be walking with two little dogs through in this ordinary little neighborhood.