- Brad Nelson
“All is calm, all is bright.” I’ve always loved that line. It makes me think of the silence of deep night and the shimmering of stars, and the feeling that everything is as it should be. Peace. Wholeness. Completeness. Whenever I’ve been with a group of people who sing the song, those words have always been sung with a collective hush, as though the peace were so fragile that singing too loudly would shatter it. It’s a song of longing and hope, and I think the reason we sing it year after year is that somewhere deep inside us, we hope that by singing it we might manage to live into it because whereas we might have the sporadic good fortune of sleeping in heavenly peace, more often than not we don’t wake up to it.
I’ll never forget the first time I heard Simon and Garfunkel’s version of Silent Night. As they begin singing, the voice of a news anchor slowly fades in reading the headlines of the 7 O’clock news.
Holy infant so tender and mild.
“In Los Angeles today comedian Lenny Bruce died of what was believed to be an overdoes of narcotics. Bruce was 42 years old.”
Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.
Dr. Martin Luther King says he does not intend to cancel plans for an open housing march Sunday into the Chicago suburb of Cicero. Cook County Sheriff Richard Ogleby asked King to call off the march and the police in Cicero said they would ask the National Guard to be called out if it is held.
As the song ends, the news anchor signs off saying, “That’s the 7 o’clock edition of the news. Good night.” It’s a brilliant picture of reality and the haunting back and forth between the longing for the world to be as it should be, and the daily news that it isn’t. And so when we sing these words, if we sing them honestly, they’re full of both longing and ache.
But there’s something significant about when we sing this song. In our family, as soon as the Thanksgiving dishes are done, my wife puts Bing Crosby’s Christmas album on. I find this profoundly irritating. I would get up to shut it off, but having just eaten, it seems like a very long walk. Shortly after Thanksgiving, the season of Advent begins.
The word advent comes from the Latin word adventus, which means “the coming or arrival of something extremely important and long awaited.” And the Christian story suggests that the peace and wholeness the world has been longing for all along finally did come, and it came in the form of a baby. So every year for four Sundays leading up to Christmas, people all over celebrate advent by re-enacting humanity’s expectant waiting for God to burst into the world and bring peace. So we light candles and sing this song of ache and longing.
Yet there is a profound difference between waiting and expectant waiting. Waiting twiddles its thumbs and shifts nervously in its seat. Waiting watches the clock. Expectant waiting prepares. Expectant waiting chooses the menu and sends out invitations. Expectant waiting anticipates the peace that is coming by preparing a way for that peace to have a chance. Expectant waiting looks at all that is wrong in the world and asks, “How can I get a head start on that so that when the calmness and brightness of God shows up, the world will recognize it for the beautiful gift it is?”
All is calm. All is bright. They’re words of longing, ache, and expectant waiting, and if they mean anything to us, we won’t just sing them with our voices. We’ll sing them with our feet by hunting down the darkness and the noise and the ache and preparing a place for peace to come in and make its home.
Brad is the director of teaching and worship at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan. A speaker, writer, and student at Western Theological Seminary (MDiv), he and his wife Trisha are the proud parents of two beautiful daughters, Braylen and Clara. To see more of Brad's writing check out his websitebleedingoutloud.com or follow him on twitter@bradleyjnelson.