Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Perfect Christmas?

Have you ever had a perfect Christmas?

Me neither.

Of course, as a parish pastor I try very hard to make the celebration of Our Lord's birth as special and memorable as possible. The altar guild decorates the nave and chancel with poinsettias and evergreens. We put up the Christmas Tree and light the candles on the Advent Wreath. We plan special choral music to delight the ears of the worshippers who probably won't be with us again until Easter. And yet, something always seems to go a tiny bit askew.

Last year I took it into my head to memorize the Christmas gospel from the second chapter of Luke. Allow me to confess that I had been--in my wild and misspent youth--a Shakespearean actor. I planned to deliver the gospel lesson with full musical accompaniment, using the text from the King James Bible--the language of Shakespeare himself. I was certain that my stirring recitation would transport the congregation to the lowly stable in Bethlehem on the wings of histrionic revery.

In a voice which John Gielgud would have envied, I began:

"And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Agustus that all the world should be taxed..."

The pianist began to play "O Little Town of Bethlehem." And just as I was hitting my vocal stride, a little girl, about four years old, broke loose from her obviously embarrassed parents and began to run laps around the front pew! I watched as every head in the nave turned in the direction of this juvenile outlaw. I could see her parents squirm--not knowing how to arrest their rambunctious offspring. I pushed on through my glorious recitation.

No one heard a bloody word of it.

It's funny, but the things we tend to remember the most about Christmas are the imperfections. The year the tree caught fire. The year the dinner burned. The year we got lost on the way to the in-laws' house. The year we spent Christmas in the hospital.

No Christmas is ever quite perfect. Indeed, the very first one was far from perfection. It involved an unwed teenage mother in a culture hostile to unwed mothers. It involved a family living in poverty. It involved an oppressive government edict. It involved homelessness. It involved a baby born in the most disgusting and unhygienic conditions--in a barn amidst animal waste and filth. The "family" waiting for the delivery were strangers at the bottom of the social food chain--shepherds, the equivalent of garbage collectors but without the high salary.

And yet, a baby was born, and that was all that really mattered. A little baby--nothing could be more perfect. A baby, tiny and innocent, awakening our spirit of gentleness. Making hope possible.

May the peace and love and joy of Christmas be with you, my friends. A Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year to all!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Yes, Virginia, There Is a Saint Nicholas

It was my last year in seminary. I was broke most of the time and depended on a student loan to pay my rent. I had an auto loan to pay and the not-inconsiderable premium on my car insurance, too. And then there were textbooks to buy, gasoline, and--oh yes!--food. The tiny stipends I received from supply preaching jobs were stretched very thin.

But every month, I'd get a cheerful little greeting card in the mail. The cards would remind me that someone was thinking of me and wishing me luck. There was never a  return address on the envelope, and the each card was signed cryptically "Me."

And contained a crisp $100 bill.

I do not know to this day who "Me" was, but that individual's anonymous act of generosity each month lightened my burden during a difficult time and reminded me that there is goodness and kindness in this world. Those cards--as well as the monetary gifts they contained--made me feel loved and valued.

Icon of St. Nicholas from Greek Orthodox Church in Tarpon Springs, FL

For centuries, each December Christians have remembered Saint Nicholas, a fourth century Turkish bishop renown for his acts of anonymous charity. The legend of this saint (who, by the way, was known to have attended the Council of Nicaea and may be one of the historical figures responsible for trinitarian orthodoxy) includes the story of his rescuing three impoverished young noblewomen from lives of prostitution by secretly throwing bags of gold through the window of their home at night. The gold provided their dowries.

This story illustrates Nicholas' devotion to the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 6: 3-4:

"But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."

Jesus teaches us--and Nicholas embodies--a beautiful gift of faith: kindness for its own sake. The secret gift is not given in expectation of thanks or reward. Rather, it is done out of love for another human being. It is done out of the hope that the giver has the ability to be a blessing to others. It is done out of the faith that God has provided daily and abundantly, and that God's goodness will not be lacking tomorrow. And it is done without imposing the burden of gratitude or a sense of inequality upon the recipient.

Down with the corpulent "Santa Claus"--a symbol of pampered greed and indulgence. I'd love to see Saint Nicholas reinstated in our popular culture as the holy man he assuredly must have been--a symbol and a reminder of Christ's call for selflessness, mercy, and faithful generosity.

May you all have a very blessed season of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Our Lord. And, as Nicholas is the patron saint of Russia, S RazhdestvOm!