Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The Choice is Ours (Reflections on the Nativity of Our Lord)


“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people…” (Luke 2:10) 

In one of my favorite Christmas stories, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, the poet Dylan Thomas wrote, “One Christmas was so much like another…that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”  I know what he meant. As much as I love Christmas, and I’ve celebrated the night of Our Lord’s birth for the last twenty-two years in the chancel of Faith Lutheran Church of Philadelphia, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you on which year we sang which anthem or which year it snowed, or which year the candles on the sconces burned down too fast and the ushers had to put them out or risk setting the church on fire. After a while, the years and memories, like the candles, seem to melt down and lose their clear shape. 

But not this year. This year I will remember. So will we all. 

This year, because of the COVID-19 restrictions, we will not be able to gather as a family in worship of the baby in the manger. There will be no Praise Team singing, no bell choir, no hugs in the narthex, no pews packed with folks singing the Christmas hymns which never get old. This year, many will not be able to gather with family around the tree on Christmas Day or at the dining table. The feasts will be smaller, the gifts will be sent through the mail and opened at a distance. The smiles will be seen on the screen of a smart phone or laptop. 

We will remember this Christmas, and the long months which preceded it. We’ll remember the shut-down; the death of George Floyd and the riots, destruction, and protests which followed; the fires in the west and the floods in the Gulf Coast; and the bitter presidential election and its aftermath which articulated our brutal divisiveness as a nation. 

The question, of course, is how will we remember these things? Will this be a time of petulant disappointment, or will this be a moment to experience God’s grace? Will we, in the midst of all that has happened, be able to hear the voices of the angels proclaiming God’s intervening presence in our chaotic world? 

Last Christmas I told a story from my late friend, Wayne Martin, a beautiful Christian man whom I’d known from my vicariate congregation in New York[i]. In 1997 I had the honor of sharing a Christmas dinner with him at the home of some mutual friends. As we sat around the table he told us of a Christmas that was vividly in his memory—Christmas of 1944, which he’d spent as a scout for Patton’s Third Army during the Battle of the Bulge. 

It seems that Wayne and two other scouts found themselves pinned down in a farm shed in France on Christmas Day. A German patrol had spotted the three GIs and opened fire with small arms. The American boys tried to return fire, but the temperature, well below freezing, was so miserably cold that they could barely move their fingers. Worse, the grease which lubricated the action on their rifles froze, rendering the weapons useless. One of the soldiers would warm a rifle over a small fire in the shed, then pass it on to one of his two buddies who would fire off a few rounds until the weapon seized again. 

The soldiers kept up this desperate relay for what seemed to be hours until they noticed that the Germans were no longer returning fire. The grease in the enemies’ weapons was also frozen. Both sides simply gave up. Wayne said to his comrades, “I guess Jesus doesn’t want us fighting on his birthday.” 

This year, I think of those three boys, thousands of miles from home, shivering through one of the coldest winters ever recorded in Europe, and fighting for their lives. Did they remember it as a day of fear and desperation, or as a day of grace and salvation? 

Perhaps this year we will remember why we celebrate December 25th. It is not about the gifts or the parties or the family traditions. It is a dark day which reminds us that God has not abandoned us. God has sent his own Son into the world to be a light of hope. 

I think of the shepherds, filled with both fear and wonder, hired men living on a subsistence wage in tents in a field like the homeless who lined the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philly this year. Suddenly, God ripped open the heavens to tell them deliverance was at hand—a baby was born in Bethlehem who would be the Messiah. But what good could a baby do? This baby, born to peasants, homeless in a barn? It would be thirty years before Jesus would proclaim the Kingdom of God had come near. Perhaps some of those shepherds would not live long enough to hear the Good News. 

And yet, they went with haste to Bethlehem all the same. They proclaimed the promise that God was still active, still at work, never forgetting God’s people. They returned to their tents glorifying and praising God—not for what God had done, for their circumstances remained unchanged—but for what God was doing. God had given them the gift of hope. 

Perhaps this year the COVID Christmas will remind us of our mutual struggle and of the responsibility we all have to each other. Perhaps we will, God willing, emerge from this pandemic with a greater sense of togetherness, a greater respect for the fragility of life, and a greater joy for the gifts with which God blesses us every day. Whether this Christmas is remembered with bitterness or triumph will be our choice. 

God’s peace be with you all. 

[i] See the Featured Post at the right for another of Wayne Martin’s Christmas stories.

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