Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel
"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
That Hardy poem, entitled The Oxen, expresses a sense of what I suppose I will call a hopeful crisis of faith. (It is also, by the way, one of the poems my dad clipped out and mailed to me while on my mission, and definitely the most faith-promoting one I received. At least Hardy has hope, unlike the other depressed atheists writing poems from the depths of their existential angst. Just what every struggling missionary needs! My companion and I used to jokingly read them to each other right before we walked out the door as that day's "animo" until the irony was not funny enough to outweigh the powerful downer of the poems themselves. Now that I am not an overweight missionary with a bad haircut and a weird skin condition and a single pair of shoes, the fact of those poems has regained its humor.)
I think that part of the Christian experience for most people is to endure "the ebb and flow of faith." For me, my faith had never ebbed on the issue of whether God exists or the divinity of Christ or the other related basics of Christianity. But for some reason, the birth of my second son prompted me to constantly think about, and fear, what life would be like, and what life would be, if there really was nothing after this, if death was really the end. Maybe I confronted those issues for the first time because we were so worried about Will's health. In any event, it got me pretty depressed. I used to impatiently shrug off the argument of those who could not believe in God because of all the horrible things that happened in this world, but suddenly I could understand what they meant. Where before I did not even worry about death, I became very upset and nervous about what would happen to us, and the thought that there really was nothing filled me with an awful dread. That death would cut me off from all the ones I loved, and end my existence altogether, was inexpressibly saddening.
So it was in this spririt that I entered the Christmas season. Obsessed with my own mortality and feeling a fear and emptiness about what life was and the finality of death. And trying to keep myself from thinking of it by shopping. It was a weird Christmas season.
But it also turned out to be the most spiritual. It was not until I felt that it was possible that there was no hope, no life, no further frontier of existence after this one, that I was able, for the first time, to feel real gratitude for Christ. Without him, my worst fears would come true. I found myself thinking that the only gift I wanted was to be able to live forever with my family and those I loved. I realize that this all sounds so cliche and self-evident, like the story line and supposed 'plot-twists' of those Stephenie Meyers books (which I read), but it was not to me, and I really did wish for the gift that is the focus of every church lesson and meeting, not realizing that I had already been informed of all these answers.
I read a book (The Life of Pi) that was touted as being able to make one believe in God, because it demonstrated that if there were two explanations for a state of affairs, we should choose to believe the explanation that makes us happier. Unfortunatley for me, I cannot make myself believe something just because it makes me feel better. I am stuck with what my honest heart tells me, and my honest heart, I think, is a sort of pessimistic one sometimes. I write all of this to explain that it was not from a sense of needing to believe that I suddenly did again believe, and believe in a deeper and truer and more desperate way.
After struggling with these feelings and fears, my faith broke through. And I am thankful that I can say with my honest heart that Christ was born in a negligible barn in an obscure part of the world to simple people. He lived a perfect life. He died and on the third day He rose again. As in Adam all men die, so in Christ shall all be made alive. This I do believe. It was a very merry Christmas.