Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Musings 2010...


I remember as a kid in the late 70s, back during the Iran hostage crisis, that around Christmas time, some of the hostages were permitted a few minutes of time on a live television broadcast to send messages to their loved ones.  I distinctly remember one bedraggled-looking middle-aged woman in a red sweater asking her family to sing with her...she cleared her throat, and she began to sing, in a quivering voice, the third verse from Away in a Manger:

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me I pray
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care
And fit us for Heaven to live with thee there.

It was the first time I recall being truly moved by the words of a song like that, and sensing the pain behind that poignant choice of a song.  To this day, I always think of that woman, reaching out for a sense of hope in a hopeless situation, whenever I hear "Away in a Manger."  Christmas simply isn't supposed to be that kind of time.  It's supposed to be happy, joyful, carefree.

And for the most part, up until that time of my life, it always had been.  I loved Christmas.  The buzz and excitement leading up to the Big Day, the special treats, cookies, Mom's Russian tea cakes, and holiday parties, the lights we'd string up in front of the house, the smell of the Christmas tree (I remember begging to sleep under the tree shortly after putting it up, because I loved lying under it and looking up at all the lights, enveloped in the aroma of the pine needles, and watching the way the the lights cast overlapping shadows of the branches on the wall).  The holiday music we'd pull off the shelves (mostly vinyl LPs!) And of course, the nearly uncontainable giddiness, coming down the stairs Christmas morning, with a bunch of new packages having magically appeared while I slept.  (Even long after I knew the truth about Santa, I always wanted to go to bed before the gifts were arranged, so I could still have that experience.)

Then, while watching this woman on TV, I was confronted with the knowledge that some people in Iran were having a perfectly awful holiday.  Granted, I was old enough by then to know that bad things happened in the world, and that people suffered, even on Christmas.  But it was really my first experience of being impressed by it.  Of feeling empathy for what must have seemed like a hopeless situation.  Their suffering went far beyond the minor disappointments I was familiar with.

This is my 44th Christmas, and by and large, most of them have been good ones.  I've certainly never been stuck in a Middle Eastern hostage situation, in any event.  And I don't consider myself a humbug, I still love the "fluff" that surrounds Christmas...the lights and the sights and the music and goodies and festivities.  Even so, part of me misses that kind of wide-eyed wonder with which I approached Christmas throughout my first decade. 

But even more so, I'm grateful for a growing understanding of what Christmas really is all about.  And I don't mean that kind of requisite "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" stuff we may feel obliged to toss in there occasionally, to convince ourselves that we aren't losing the Baby Jesus amid the bows, ribbons, powdered sugar, and credit card receipts.  No, I mean really coming to grips with the absolute awe and wonder of what those olive wood and ceramic nativity scenes scattered around the house actually represent--the God of the Universe stepping into a world held hostage, not just by political powers but by our fallen selves, with all our sin, our sickness, our abject brokenness.

This Christmas has been a much...well...different one for my family.  Dealing with Mom's health crisis and its aftermath...and together with it, the growing realization that we are broken, that we are subject to suffering, and our mortal bodies are hopelessly bound to the decaying world on which we live.  While we've been blessed to enjoy some of the "fluff" that attaches itself to Christmas this year, the events of the past couple of months have put a damper on the festivities that we're used to.  It's all the more reason to sing that child-like prayer from Away in a Manger, and so like that poor hostage, I invite you to sing it with me:

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me I pray
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care
And fit us for Heaven to live with thee there.

So whether our Christmas has been that ideal Christmas where we got to spend it with happy, healthy families, with lots of good food and friends and an abundance under the tree...or whether it's been a hard time, a lonely time, where we are where we don't want to be, living through what we don't want to experience...Jesus invites us to be in His tender care, as he fits us to live with Him eternally.  Everything else should pale in significance compared to that marvelous hope we have.

So it's okay...enjoy the fun, shed the tears, experience the season, whether by its joy or its sorrow.  But let us not forget that the story isn't over yet. This year, for me, anyway, those are very glad tidings indeed.

Gloria in excelsis Deo. 

Merry Christmas.

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