Having eaten a teeny bit more than was good for me yesterday, I found myself doom scrolling in the joyless hours between one and three, wishing I hadn’t gone creeping back for that last piece of cheese, and wondering if Jesus could be prevailed upon to return now, rather than waiting too much longer. At the greatest moment of my despair, I happened upon this heartbreaking look at how things are going in a high school in Pennsylvania:
At Liberty, vestiges of remote learning linger. Many students wear pajamas, the dress code of bedrooms turned to classrooms and a reflection of disrupted sleep schedules. Students move through the hallways sluggishly, looking at their phones or straight ahead, as if still staring at computer screens. Last year, 66 percent of students did hybrid learning, and more than 33 percent went completely virtual. Students and educators use terms like “re-entry,” “recivilizing” and “reintegrating” to describe the transition back to a more normal routine. Covid restrictions still prevent full engagement. Masks have encouraged anonymity and discouraged dialogue. “People don’t know how to communicate anymore,” said Jazlyn Korpics, 18, a senior at Liberty. “Everybody’s a robot now — their minds are warped.”
Part of the way the school has tried to cope is by developing a wellness center:
Robin Sorensen, the wellness center’s clinical supervisor, said the school would be “lost” had Dr. Bailey not created the space. The four therapists’ caseloads are nearly full. “I’ve never seen more referrals for mental health that just say, ‘Sitting and crying in the bathroom,’” Ms. Sorensen said. Kaisyn Carswell, 16, filed in on a recent day after he came across someone being jumped in the boys’ bathroom. The center, which he visits several times a week for therapy and “breaks,” has helped him weather life during the pandemic, which he described as “when you feel emptiness, but the emptiness is really heavy.”
The piece ends abruptly on a bleak note about weathering the storms that always come. The staff of the school will cope because what else can they do? They can’t think about better days in the future, or make long-range plans to solve the immense problems crushing them. Teachers are burning out and quitting. Omicron is bashing its way through the whole population. All they can do is show up for work day by day.
I imagine the same thing could be written about schools—and purveyors of medical services—up and down all the wide highways and narrow byways of every corner of this country. That unhappily prescient turn of phrase—“when you feel emptiness, but the emptiness is really heavy”—strikes me as the best possible expression for the current condition of the culture as a whole.
I wish I had had it to turn over in my despair as I wandered around trying to do a lot of my Christmas shopping last week, struggling to even out my lists and make sure that everything was basically fair. Is someone getting only socks and another someone getting a Chromebook? I couldn’t keep it straight, and had to go out again and again, each time coming home more disoriented and hopeless than before. I could really have done with a “wellness center” along the way.
Into this hopeless condition, if the Christian scriptures are to be believed, over the jarring cacophony—verging on hysteria—of “Christmas” music piping into the big-box stores with lighting from hell, the Lord, for Zion’s sake, announces that he will not keep silent. He will not be quiet. He will search out the very people who, muffled in thick layers of masks, eyes clouded by the constant use of screens, look both inwardly at the body and outwardly at the world and find nothing there. He will go on purpose to speak to those who are empty beyond any human possibility of being filled or made well. He will not sit around waiting to see if anyone else will be able to come up with any solutions, wondering if some kind of system can be created to stop the catastrophe of human suffering. He will send out his own Word and that Word will be a Person. A person who gets up off his throne and comes himself, the bridegroom going forth to claim a bride, the healer opening the eyes and unstopping the ears of the deaf and blind.
The only antidote, the only hope for the world is Christmas. The only hope for every bleak and desolate school distract or medical facility or economy or anyone in the whole world is the gospel of the God who comes into the world to save sinners from their sins and make them well.
It is for this reason, I think, that I finally have some theological excuse for not liking “Silent Night” very much. I mean, I don’t totally hate it, and I did absolutely love the way King’s College did it this year for Lessons and Carols, but I think I finally figured out why it’s not the ideal Christmas anthem.*
Musically, Silent Night doesn’t communicate the necessary tension a person ought to feel when confronted with the astonishing truth that things are so bad that God had to come down from his throne to fix them all. It feels complacent, as if God longed only to come and languish in a manger for no real reason at all, other than the sweet-smelling hay, and the soft prettiness of his own mother. It is the sort of carol you sing when all the children in a school are dressed nicely and are delighted to listen to their teachers. It communicates to American people that which they already know, or at least want to believe—that God came in quiet babyness and stayed that way so that we can eat as much as we want and buy everything and be comfortable about who we are. Singing it might feel satisfying in the moment, but then you have to still go to work in the morning, where emptiness is still filling up the hearts and minds of the broken and hopeless.
The night of our Lord’s Incarnation was not about silence. God came on purpose to speak and then to die. Knowing we are carrying an immense weight of emptiness that we cannot endure, he came to save, to wage war against the overpowering spiritual darkness of the human heart. When you go to him, when you spiritually grab onto him, your own mouth will be filled with his saving work. You will have to speak. You will have to go to people who have come to the end of themselves and tell them that Jesus picked up that empty desolation and died and rose again.
So anyway, Merry Christmas! And may God embolden you to go into the very darkest of places and cry out that he is good, that there is hope.
* Other ones like, “Thou who wast rich beyond all splendor” are so much better.