A breeze was entering the room through the window and rushing about inside, giving small notice here and there. William would have smiled then, had he been the sort to smile. One envies such types—who do not smile. The rest of us go around like fools, and these few maintain such dignity.
— Jesse Ball, The Curfew
They say it takes more muscles to frown than to smile. I wonder about that. Sometimes it seems there is nothing easier than not to smile. Even at Christmas.
I opened my computer this morning and the bad news came tumbling through the ether. A predictable litany of wars and rumours of war, terror and threats of terror, lies and manipulation, suspicion and division, panic and anger. We live in fearful and anxious times. Perhaps it has ever been thus, but 2017 has been seemed a particularly bad year to read the news.
I clicked on a few messages from churchy colleagues and friends across the country and encountered familiar stories of foreboding pessimism about the state of the church. Creaking institutional structures, shrinking budgets, fragmenting and splintering churches, unproductive conversations, uncertain futures. These are familiar stories by now, I know, but no less dispiriting for all their familiarity.
I had a few conversations with friends, neighbours, loved ones. I heard stories of bullying and mistreatment, of loneliness and anxiety, of the pain of being rejected. I marvelled at how resourceful human beings can be in chipping away at one another’s humanity, how resolutely skilled we can be in misunderstanding, misconstruing, misinterpreting, mistaking. Everybody Hurts, R.E.M. famously sang. And it’s true. We really do.
I visited a few people in the hospital. In the bed next to one person I went to see was an alcoholic being treated for an ulcer. He moaned and squirmed and spat and vomited over the side of his bed throughout the time I was there. A nurse came, and went. Another visitor came, and went (after rebuking him for not getting up). The next person I visited was fast asleep when I arrived, curled up in the fetal position, headphones over their ears, religious programming buzzing away on the screen that rested a few inches from their face. I caught a few words on the closed captioning on the bottom of the screen before I closed the door: Never underestimate the power of prayer.
Yes, it’s rather easy not to smile. There’s plenty out there to evoke this response. There can even be a kind of grim pleasure in refusing to smile. We console ourselves with the knowledge that we have the courage to look at the world in clear-sighted ways, we don’t dress up reality by pretending that things are better than they are, we aren’t afraid of the truth. We dutifully read the news of the day, grimly sharing and reacting in the appropriate ways, bravely demonstrating our compassion and virtue to the world around us. Maintaining our wretched dignity in this most undignified of worlds.
But Christmas is here. Ah, yes, Christmas. That season of the year when naïve and blinkered platitudes well and truly run amok…
The season that tells a truth that even the crass advertisers and greedy consumers cannot finally bury. A hope that even the news of the day cannot stifle or suppress.
A story… a star… a journey… a birth… the hopes and fears of all the years collapsing at the feet of this child who has the world in his hands… A holy night.
The thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices, goes the famous song. Can we still be thrilled by hope, I wonder? Are we too weary for rejoicing? Do those of us whose native tongue is lament have the ability to learn (or re-learn) the language of joy, to have our hearts tuned to sing his praise? To become the sort to smile?
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name
Sweet hymns of joy. A grateful chorus. Yes, these are surely what is needed most, even in the midst of wars and rumours of war and church struggles and everybody hurting and moaning and spitting off the sides of hospital beds. Dignity be damned. This Christmas, let us go around like holy fools, stubbornly smiling for all the world to see.