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Seven Swans a’ Swimming

Seeking a true Christmas peace.


“The trumpeters are in!” said Linda.

I stumbled out of bed and joined her gawking out of our front room window. In the early morning sunlight streaming up the lake, the pearl white trumpeter swans were absolutely stunning as they floated just off the shore on the dark winter water of Lac La Hache. They were framed on the shore by six inches of freshly fallen snow. They supported jet-black bills with a tiny little flesh-coloured stripe at the base of the lower bill. The young were now full grown in size but were still the dusky gray colour of adolescents. They could have been the more common whistler swans except for their huge size and their distinct but subtle markings. But what identified them as trumpeter swans more than anything else was their honking. It sounded like a cross between a ’57 Buick and a B-flat trumpet. There were seven of them playing in the band, doing tip-ups in the shallows adjacent to our dock and flashing their yellow garters for all to see.

“Huh! Seven swans a’ swimming and it’s the beginning of Advent,” I said.

I got on with my day. But I had two opposing Advent images in my head that had been stirred by the swans – one that I liked and one that I disliked. It was oddly disturbing. I loved the peaceful image of the huge pearl white trumpeter swans on the black winter water, framed by the freshly fallen snow and highlighted by the sun hanging just above the horizon. It was the quintessential picture of beauty and peace, peace that I crave, especially as a hectic Christmas is slowly winched into view by the Advent calendar.

The other image in my mind was stirred up by the number of swans present on this particular day and the aggravating reference I had made to “seven swans a’ swimming.” That line somehow placed me right in the middle of the mall in our nearest city being jostled about by crowds of people desperate to satisfy their consumer addictions while the piped in music bellowed The Twelve Days of Christmas. Oh how I detest that side of Christmas.

The kind of Christmas I need to be launched into by Advent is the “peace on earth, good will to men” kind of Christmas. It certainly is not the piped-in-mall-music Twelve Days of Christmas variety. I want beauty, peace, tranquility and wonder; not ugly jostling crowds in a shopping uproar, locked in economic pandemonium, hell-bent on firmly nailing down Christmas as a season of debt-induced perpetual poverty. I want a nice, pretty, religious Christmas with close family and good food; not a hideous secular economic binge marked by strong-arming strangers and fast food-induced diarrhea. Do you get the picture?

The only problem is that the Christ whose name I bear, whose advent I await and whose birth I celebrate at Christmas didn’t come into the picture of beauty, peace and tranquility that the swans have stirred up in my head, the one that I so much want to be a part of at this time of year. He came into the other one. If you read the Bible seriously, Jesus was born as a refugee in a city absent of family, a secular world so jostled with crowds that he had to be cradled in a hay trough, so ugly that his birth resulted in the assassination of many innocent children by a hideous regime that continually manipulated the economy to lock masses of people in perpetual poverty. That’s the picture of the first Christmas. And as much as I wished it wasn’t, that is precisely the point. It seems that somehow the swan-induced warm fuzzy Christmas I crave is a farce, at least according to my Bible.

Each year, more and more, and most particularly at this time of year, I am ashamed to confess I have to rely on my Bible to jerk me back to reality with regards to my faith expectations. You would think by now I would be starting to get it right. But the craving for a warm fuzzy is deep and carnal. What I so often don’t get right is that the Jesus of my faith came into the middle of an ugly, jostling culture and a hideous kingdom of physical and economic oppression. He came as a counterculture king, proclaiming a counterculture kingdom that demanded justice for the poor, oppressed and impoverished. He was born in a Bethlehem animal shelter virtually at the foot of the artificial mountain where King Herod had built a lavish fortress mausoleum for himself. And into the midst of this bustling madness of Herodian oppression, he came birthing a kingdom of God where, in his own words: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom f
or the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18-19)

This Advent, thanks to the seven swans a’ swimming out my back door, my whole being has been tweaked to the tension between the warm fuzzy religion of my carnal craving and the radical gospel of my Master’s birthing. What remains to be seen, what has not fully arrived, at least in my life, is what I do with this tension. I am, after all, getting longer in the tooth. And yet, I am aware that others before me, others I know who became similarly tweaked in the later stages of life, have found themselves taking their lives into ministries that more closely reflect the biblical Christmas kingdom birth. I find myself extremely inspired and challenged by their example this Advent season, and once again I am seriously confronting myself with the question: Can there ever be a true Christian peace and spirituality without the seeking of justice for the oppressed in real and tangible ways?

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