December 2, 2020

Frederick Buechner: “Christmas Itself Is by Grace”

Some writers take my breath away.

Whenever I read Frederick Buechner, I can’t stop gasping for air.

Buechner is simply one of our best American authors. You can see his biography HERE, at the Buechner Institute’s website. Born in 1926, young Frederick experienced a tragic and profoundly formative event when his father committed suicide. After graduating from Princeton, he moved to New York to become a writer, but instead found himself called into the ministry. He served in George Buttrick’s church in NYC and then as school minister at Phillips Exeter Academy. He wrote during those years, but it wasn’t until 1967 that his family moved to Vermont where he took up the craft full time. Over the course of his career Buechner has published more than 30 works of fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and spiritual reflection.

When I read Buechner, I feel as though I have passed into a realm where everything superficial and secondary has been stripped away. All I see is the true nature of things. The foundations are laid bare. I see an ancient, tested way stretch forth before me. My stomach knots. This is honest. This is raw. This is real.

Take these beautiful words, for example,

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” (Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation)

Or this punchy reminder: “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

You will be hearing a lot more from Frederick Buechner in 2012 here on Internet Monk. It’s one of my New Year’s resolutions. For today, I’d like us to ponder and discuss what he has to say about Christmas.

The following passage is from Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary.

A Flock of Sheep in a Barn, Jacque


The lovely old carols played and replayed till their effect is like a dentist’s drill or a jack hammer, the bathetic banalities of the pulpit and the chilling commercialism of almost everything else, people spending money they can’t afford on presents you neither need nor want, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the plastic tree, the cornball crèche, the Hallmark Virgin. Yet for all our efforts, we’ve never quite managed to ruin it. That in itself is part of the miracle, a part you can see. Most of the miracle you can’t see, or don’t.

The young clergyman and his wife do all the things you do on Christmas Eve. They string the lights and hang the ornaments. They supervise the hanging of the stockings. They tuck in the children. They lug the presents down out of hiding and pile them under the tree. Just as they’re about to fall exhausted into bed, the husband remembers his neighbor’s sheep. The man asked him to feed them for him while he was away, and in the press of other matters that night he forgot all about them. So down the hill he goes through knee-deep snow. He gets two bales of hay from the barn and carries them out to the shed. There’s a forty-watt bulb hanging by its cord from the low roof, and he lights it. The sheep huddle in a corner watching as he snaps the baling twine, shakes the squares of hay apart and starts scattering it. Then they come bumbling and shoving to get at it with their foolish, mild faces, the puffs of their breath showing in the air. He is reaching to turn off the bulb and leave when suddenly he realizes where he is. The winter darkness. The glimmer of light. The smell of the hay and the sound of the animals eating. Where he is, of course, is the manger.

He only just saw it. He whose business it is above everything else to have an eye for such things is all but blind in that eye. He who on his best days believes that everything that is most precious anywhere comes from that manger might easily have gone home to bed never knowing that he had himself just been in the manger. The world is the manger. It is only by grace that he happens to see this other part of the miracle.

Christmas itself is by grace. It could never have survived our own blindness and depredations otherwise. It could never have happened otherwise. Perhaps it is the very wildness and strangeness of the grace that has led us to try to tame it. We have tried to make it habitable. We have roofed it in and furnished it. We have reduced it to an occasion we feel at home with, at best a touching and beautiful occasion, at worst a trite and cloying one. But if the Christmas event in itself is indeed—as a matter of cold, hard fact—all it’s cracked up to be, then even at best our efforts are misleading.

The Word become flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not touching. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light. Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space, time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself. You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God…who for us and for our salvation,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, “came down from heaven.”

Came down. Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see. It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms. It is the bitterness of death he takes at her breast.


  1. I really struggle with the concept of grace. I know what the Bible says, I know how its supposed to work. But then I also reflect on the realities of it as well. I learned that in many churches and evangelical environments it doesn’t exist. Grace does not exist. It’s funny you should have this post CM as I am wrestling through Philip Yancey’s “What’s So Amazing About Grace.” There are two stories in Yancey’s book haunt me immensely…
    The first story is an opening to the book itself.
    “I told a story in my book “The Jesus I Never Knew”, a true story that long afterward continued to haunt me. I heard it form a friend who works with the down-and-out in Chicago.

    A prostitute came to me in wretched straits, homeless, sick, unable to buy food for her 2 year old daughter. Through sobs and tears, she told me of how she had been renting out her daughter – 2 years old!! to men interested in kinky sex. She made more renting out her daughter for an hour than she could earn on her own for a night. She had to do it she said, to support her own drug habit. I could hardly bear hearing such a sordid story. For one thing, it made me legally liable – I’m required to report cases of child abuse. I had no idea what to say to this woman. At last I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure, naive shock that crossed her face. “Church!!” she cried. “Why would I ever go there? I already feel terrible about myself. They’d just go and make me feel worse.”

    As extremely disturbing as that story is I think many people view the Christian church in that mindset. Why go there? They’ll just make me feel worse….? I’ve heard a number of responses similar to that over the years. And I myself learned that the hard way – by being in the system for 10 years.In Christianity you don’t get grace. It’s a myth!! The second story in the book explains why Ernest Hemingway didn’t believe in God. Its especially disturbing when you consider that he killed himself with a shot gun. Its also the reason why Hemingway despised God.

    Again Philip Yancey in “What’s So Amazing About Grace”


    Hemingway knows about the ungrace of families. His devout parents – Hemingway’s grandparents had attended evangelical Wheaton College- had detested Hemingway’s libertine life, and after a time his mother refused to allow him in her presence. One year for his birthday she mailed him a cake, along with the gun his father had used to kill himself. Another year she wrote him a letter explaining that a mother’s life is a like a bank. “Every child that is born to her enters the world with a large and prosperous bank account, seemingly inexhaustible.” That child she continued, makes withdrawals, but no deposits during the early years. Later, when a child grows up , it is his responsibility to replenish that supply he has drawn down. Hemingway’s mother then proceeded to spell out the specific ways in which Ernest should be making “deposits to keep the account in good standing.”: flowers, fruit or candy, a surreptitious paying of Mother’s bills, and above all a determination to stop “neglecting your duties to God and your Savior, Jesus Christ” Hemingway never got over his hatred for his mother or for her Savior.

    As much as I want to believe that Christianity is about grace, that Christmas itself is about grace. Experience has taught me otherwise….

    • Kerri in AK says

      Eagle – I dunno; grace just, well, happens. In very unlikely circumstances.

      A story.

      About four years I ago, I met a homeless man on the streets in Anchorage, Alaska. It was October and he was bundled up well but asking for change nonetheless. I had some time and was going his way so we walked and talked. Told me he was from International Mills, MN and how he knew the economy was getting worse because there was less food thrown out in the dumpsters behind the restaurants. I gave him some change and wished him well.

      On Christmas eve, I ran into him again walking from the bus station to my job. I had plenty of time so stood there in the misty, frigid dark and listened to him. How his tent and three sleeping bags (he nestled inside each other) had been stolen when he was out one day. He was wistful but was quick to say that he’d been able to get enough money to replace the sleeping bags. How a man got to talking with him a couple days before and when he found out that Mr. International Mills, MN had not spoken to his mother in quite a long time, asked if he wanted to call her and pulled out his cell phone. Shocked, Mr. IM, MN called and spoke to his mother while the man stood a discrete distance away. He was in tears when he told me this. We wished each other a Merry Christmas and moved on.

      In the spring, I ran into him again near my workplace and he told me how he’d gotten into the situation he found himself. Lots of bad decisions with drugs and drink but it was getting into a car accident with a girlfriend (he was badly injured) while drinking that pulled the rug out from under him. Lost his job, lost his license and ended up on the street. How his injury had affected his memory and apologized to me when after 10 minutes of talking that he asked me again for change because he’d forgotten. Said he been off drink and drugs because he’d found Jesus and asked if I had too. Then he told me how a man had asked him if he needed a watch and then gave him a rather expensive one that could do all sorts of things (he showed me – it was something else) simply because the man had bought another one. Unfortunately, he had no idea how to work the watch so it was an hour off until daylight savings time went into effect. He was genuinely bemused by that act of kindness.

      That fall, I saw him again and he told me how he tries to get to the shelters and missions to get a meal but that recently these places saw fit to give him warm gloves and a pair of (mismatched size) boots. He was appreciative for them because, he said, it made it a little easier for him to be outside all the time.

      I saw him last the winter before I came to England. It was a very cold and snowy morning and he seemed more perplexed than before. I had to reintroduce myself (again) and when I asked if he was able to stay warm he was quick to tell me that between his sleeping bags and the shelters he was okay. He walked with me a bit but had to sit down at the first bench. I was headed to get my daily coffee so got him one, too. The simple, happy smile I got warmed my heart.

      This man is soaked in grace. He knows he’s screwed up and he knows he’ll never be “normal.” He makes no excuses for his situation other than to say “I am who I am.” He’s gotten nothing to lose and nothing to prove. He makes his way the best way he can and is shown countless little acts of grace – I suspect he also receives more than his fair share of abuse, too. He accepts these little grace-filled acts with bemusement and humility. I’m convinced Jesus comes to him in these moments of grace – the people who gave him change that eventually was enough for him to buy replacement sleeping bags; the man who had him call his mother; the man who gave him a watch; the mission that gave him gloves and boots of two different sizes; perhaps even me. He’s not trying to better himself; he simply accepts who he is. He probably doesn’t even recognize Jesus in all those times but that really doesn’t matter. Jesus recognizes him. And that’s what’s so amazing about grace.

      • Great account, Kerri, and a great description of grace.
        People tend to fall into two categories when it comes to grace.
        Some are drawn to any manifestation of grace, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, and see it as a treasure and a gift.
        Others are so overwhelmed by the seeming scarcity of grace in this world that even when grace shows up in plain sight, it appears as just a mockery or a fluke in a reality dominated by suffering and despair.
        The choice we all face is whether or not we’re willing to sell everything we own to buy a seemingly worthless field and spend the time and effort sorting through tons of dirt, rocks, and weeds — just to uncover the relatively tiny but infinitely more valuable treasure of grace that’s buried there.

    • The Previous Dan says

      Your reasoning is that God is not gracious because man is not gracious. But it is just the opposite. God’s grace is proved by the fact that He continues to give to and reach out to ungracious mankind. And that includes those of us that imperfectly bear His name.

  2. I love the words “The Word become flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not touching. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror.”

    Wesley wrote about Christ’s return in a similar fashion, describing Him as “robed in dreadful majesty”. While Wesley was describing the Lion of Judah, riding a white horse, robes drenched in blood, the same words can be used to describe the baby, born homeless, wrapped in linen, the maker of the universe, now defenseless and naked, wrapped in rough linens…robed in dreadful majesty, indeed.

    Wonderful thoughts to start the day, CM. I’ve had Buechner on my Amazon wish list for some time…I’ve a feeling reading more of him here is going to move him to the basket.

  3. Eagle, I came to understand grace much better by pondering what it means that God is my CREATOR. Before thinking about grace in salvation, I recommend thinking about the fact that we are here and granted life itself through pure grace. What did I do to be born? What did I do to gain or earn life? The question is preposterous. The fact that I am here, writing to you at this moment, is the result of countless creative acts of grace that God has done on my behalf, bringing me into the world and preserving me to this point.

    Life itself is a gift. That is the beginning of grace. All things lead from there.

    • The Previous Dan says

      You have brought up a very big question that is at the heart of my greatest struggle. What if life/existence is something that you didn’t ask for and don’t necessarily want? What if it is something you wish you would have been consulted on beforehand (logically impossible, I know) so that you could have the option to turn it down? Really, who would choose to be born into this screwed up place? Is existence grace or is grace what makes existence bearable?

    • “Thy life’s a miracle, speak yet again.”

      –quote from a Shakespeare play I don’t remember

    • CM…

      Do most Christians have grace backwards? Is grace really confused? I’m not trying to be difficult when I ask this but if life is a gift, does God use cancer or a drunk driver to take it away?

      Maybe I’m just confused…..


  4. The Previous Dan says

    I have the same reaction to Buechner as you do. He has a special gift for recalibrating my perspective.

  5. Glad to see Buechner receiving due attention.

  6. Eagle:

    there is, what i have recognized, the 2 “B” categories of life; 1) bullshit; & 2) blessing…

    not in the Yin/Yang concept of karma or cosmic balance, but in differing proportions for each individual, yet with commonalities we all can identify with…

    if you were to be as objective as you possibility could be, i do believe you would discover that yes Virginia, the blessings do indeed exceed the bullshit factor…

    the blessings/grace elements much more subtle & mostly overlooked by our calloused gaze though…

    we do react with intense emotional repulsion by the horror of evil & the oft time cruel intrusion of impersonal tragedy in our lives & those closest to us…

    in the midst of all this bullshit, there is grace. not as the world gives, or even appreciates at times, but it is there nonetheless…

    there are those humble saints that do recognize it & choose to reflect it back to those that need a human representation of its divine origins…

    we all have this choice to make: will i be both a blessing as well as blessed? humbly recognizing the incredible blessings undeserved in spite of the bullshit & then choose to bless others as i go about my life no matter what bullshit i endure?

    blessings to you this most Holy Season…

    • Right there with ya Joseph. Grace permeates our being and nitt witts that we are, we don,t see it.

  7. What I have learned after 76 yrs. Trust in God, make Jesus your role model, no one is perfect,we are all flawed, don’t let other people’s actions dictate yourstate of mind or happiness. Don’t give them that power over you.

  8. Really looking forward to hearing more of Buechner here. He’s absolutely one of my favorite authors. Everything he writes has a way of pulling me back to the core of what faith means. And he understands like few others how grace and glory and mystery intermingle with the earthiness and downright strangeness of human nature and existence.

  9. “Christmas itself is by grace. It could never have survived our own blindness and depredations otherwise. It could never have happened otherwise. Perhaps it is the very wildness and strangeness of the grace that has led us to try to tame it. ”

    A wonderful picture of that first sentence shown forth in the Christmas truce between Christians in WWI. The shunning of that story by many Christians is the epitomy of the third sentence. Exuberant reviewers aside, many seem to wish such an embarrassing event had never happened or, at least, had never come to light.

  10. The Word became flesh…. how humbling, how magnificent. I think the empty, commercial, misguided celebration of the birth of the Savior of the world is one of satan’s biggest coups.

  11. Jesus, too, knew the pain and suffering of a broken, pride-soaked world.

    He came that we might have new life in Him, when we’ll need it again. He loves to pull real sinners up out of the bottom of graves and bring them to Himself.

    The life of faith may be a tough one, that’s for sure. But, as said Peter said when Jesus asked if he was going to leave Him also, “You have the words of eternal life…where else are we to go?”