The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall
rejoice, and blossom as the rose.
Our Christmas carols are so familiar that it is hard to recognize the depth of wisdom and
devotion they contain. Theologians may argue about the exact meaning of the incarnation,
about how the divine and the human are together in the person of Jesus, but our Christmas
carols simply proclaim that the Lord has come, and call us to rejoice.
One of the most familiar of these carols is "Joy to the World," and it is only this year
that I noticed what it is saying. Earth is to receive her king. Heaven and nature are to
sing. Fields, flocks, rocks, hills, and plains are to repeat the sounding joy. Sins and
sorrows are to be banished, and so are thorns. There is a kind of dialogue throughout
between the world of the soul and the world of nature. The gift of inner righteousness and
the gift of natural beauty come hand in hand.
This vision has ancient roots. In our text, Isaiah looked forward to a time when the
desert would become a fruitful garden, when the wilderness would rejoice. In all
probability, there are echoes here of a return to Eden, to the lost paradise into which
humanity was first created.
In our own times, we are just beginning to recapture this vision. For some centuries, the
Western world, largely Christian, has regarded nature as almost an enemy, to be overcome.
The results of this are beginning to catch up to us in the form of mountains of waste,
unsafe groundwater, and noxious air. We are beginning to realize that we must cooperate
with nature, and the wonderful fact is that nature is indeed bountiful. Every astronaut
who has seen our planet as a single unit seems to have been struck by its beauty and its
fertility, seeing it as an island of richness in the emptiness of space.
We might do well, at this particular Christmas, to pay special attention to the fact that
the infant Jesus was laid in a manger, quite possibly with more animals in attendance than
people, and that the first "outsiders" to recognize his birth were shepherds. This was an
era before we had separated ourselves from the world of nature, an era when parables of
seed and harvest, vine and branch, were close to everyone's experience. This was a child
born into the world of nature, one who as an adult would walk from town to town,
occasionally plucking some grain along the way.
We might even suspect that there is a kind of parallel between mother Mary and mother
nature. In the Christmas scene, as our faith reminds us, we see the Divine itself assuming
our nature, entering our situation. That is, we, too, began life as infants, dependent for
shelter and nourishment on our parents. Now as adults we depend just as completely on the
world of nature for the food we eat and the materials with which we build our houses. We
may have learned to synthesize various vitamins and useful plastics, but we synthesize
them out of the materials provided us. When astronauts leave this earth, they have to take
some of it with them in order to survive. In this respect we are still children, even
Part of the message of Christmas, then, is a direct challenge to our usual notions of
power. We tend to think of power as the ability to control things or people, but the
manger scene tells us that this is at best one dim reflection of true power. True power,
total power, omnipotence is there in the manger. True power belongs to the Lord alone. We
receive our measure of that power when we dispose ourselves to accept it; and we dispose
ourselves to accept it as we recognize that we stand in need of it. That is, as long as we
claim strength for ourselves, as long as we persist in imitating power, we turn away from
the only source of power there is.
In the coming decades, I trust that we will learn this on the ecological scale. I trust,
that is, that we will discover more and more ways in which we can use energy economically
by cooperating with nature rather than wasting energy by trying to overcome nature. We
will be pressed to do this by outward circumstance, by the simple fact that we cannot keep
on depleting our resources.
But if this is to be more than a grudging acceptance of the inevitable, there must be a
deeper change. There must be a growing recognition of the beauty and the sanity of
cooperation in all areas of life. We are dependent on the world of nature, yes. We are
also dependent on each other, obviously for the goods and services we cannot provide for
ourselves, and more profoundly for the very meaning of our lives. We are created to live
in community, each with special gifts to contribute and with unique needs. Life makes no
sense in isolation, apart from relationships.
I cannot help suspecting that we would move more steadily toward social justice if we
shifted our attention from "human rights" to "human responsibilities." "Claiming our
rights" tends to set us at odds with each other. It feeds the anxiety that there are only
so many "rights" to go around, and that we are in competition for them. Acknowledging our
responsibilities is far more humbling. There is not the same feeling that there are only
so many responsibilities to go around. We would be far less inclined to strive for more
power if we admitted wholeheartedly that every increase in power is an increase in
Solomon, in his early years, offers us an example. Overwhelmed by the burdens of kingship,
he confessed, "I am only a little child, I do not know how to go out or come in." He
recognized his need of a wisdom commensurate with his responsibilities, and because of
this recognition of need, he was given the wisdom.
Christmas calls each of us to the same recognition. "I am only a little child, I do not
know how to go out or come in." It calls us to cast off the pretensions to independence
and adequacy urged on us by our culture. In the presence of the manger scene, it is all
right to be a very little person in a very big world. We don't have to pretend to be in
control. We simply have to accept our place in the larger scheme of things, be our best
selves toward each other, and meet our responsibilities as best we can, knowing that it is
as vital to be faithful in that which is least as in that which is greatest.
Once a year, we should be able to manage this kind of humility; and if we do, year after
year, it will become more natural to us and spread beyond the Christmas season into the
rest of the year. At last, then, we may hope for the time when Christmas is not so much an
expression of the way things ought to be as a symbol of the way things are, a picture of
peace on earth and good will among us all.