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Listening for those silent nights

This Christmas, will you kneel by the manger a changed person?

By Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today

Carving of Mary holding the baby Jesus.

Phil Hearing/Unsplash

One of my last trips to PC(USA) headquarters before COVID-19 suspended travel for remote workers like myself took place during Advent 2019. After a week of meetings, I was on my way to Louisville’s Muhammad Ali International Airport at the crack of dawn hoping — barring no weather delays — to be home in Vermont with time to unpack and transition from editor to pastor. I live a dual life, which isn’t always easy, especially when story and sermon deadlines constantly nip at your heels.

As the first flight of my day soared into the clouds, I couldn’t close my tired eyes. I kept thinking how I was doing a lousy job practicing self-care. My devotional time had become rushed rather than savored. My daily runs, which were my time to pray, were more like sprints past the deer and turkeys so that I could get back to the work on my computer faster. What hit hard, though, was the realization that I had not lit any of my Advent wreath candles. Was I really that busy that I couldn’t find time to watch and wait in this holy season?

Coffee was my top priority when I landed at my layover airport. I made my way to the food court and found a table with a view of the concourse. It was there I noticed the frenzy all around me as people rushed to their gates. Nursing my still-too-hot coffee, I watched a woman skillfully juggle a grande coffee, a crying toddler and a cumbersome bag filled with long tubes of candy-cane-striped wrapping paper. The upbeat holiday music filling the airport’s cavernous halls seemed to keep everyone moving in step to the beat. Was it just my imagination or did that man begin prancing to his gate as “Jingle Bells” played?

I closed my eyes and listened to the noises engulfing me: the chattering of conversations, the scraping of metal chairs as people got up from their tables, the crumpling of bags filled with muffins and bagels. Mercifully, the “dashing through the snow” had ended. What played next, though, startled me. The first few chords were disarmingly soft. Silent night, holy night. My eyes remained closed as I breathed deeply. I could see in my mind’s eye an illuminated manger. I could see a vulnerable baby who was the Savior born for all humankind. I could see the calm of that night. When I opened my eyes, though, the scene in front of me was anything but. Words of heavenly peace wafted over chaos. Was this how it was so long ago? Did the world then continue its frenzied pace, too, not slowing down to let the divine recalibrate lives? No one seemed to notice the transforming power of the song, but I did. And I welcomed the reminder that I needed more silence in my life to restore my frazzled soul.

As this Christmas approaches, I find myself thinking of that surreal airport scene and how ironic that a few weeks later a pandemic forced a busy and weary world to slow down. Friends and congregants lamented about what was being lost amid virus precautions. I was secretly thankful. My devotions weren’t rushed. On my runs I prayed with each step and took time to marvel at the wildlife on my path. I lit not just Advent wreath candles, but candles even after the holidays were over. As each little flame danced, I discovered that the “silent night, holy night” I yearned for could be every night if I just made time for God. When Christmas 2020 came and we still couldn’t meet in our sanctuaries, I went into the woods where “heaven and nature” sang to me. It was my dream Christmas worship come true.

While this Christmas might not be as solitary as last year, it seems it will still be filled with uncertainty. Where will we be? In our sanctuaries? In our living rooms watching online? More importantly, where will we be as people of faith?

This Christmas, we will each grapple with the COVID-19 realities in our communities, which are varied across the country. But no matter how Christmas 2021 unfolds, I pray that the one thing we will have in common is that we all come to the Holy Infant’s manger changed — and open to change even more. The world is trying its best to thwart the new thing God has begun among us. It is insistent on returning to its noisy and frenzied self, and taking us with it. We don’t have to comply. We can be the ones who notice the soft chords of a silent and holy night blanketing the chaos all around. We can choose to live with more meaning, more prayer, more empathy and more love. My friends, no matter what this season brings, may all be calm for you and your family. And may all be bright.

Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today. She spent Christmas Eve 2020 in snow up to her knees, listening to the cows moo and watching her neighbors flock by night. She hopes she can do it again this year. How has the pandemic changed you? What new Christmas tradition was born out of the pandemic? Drop her a note at donna.jackson@pcusa.org.

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