Hark, the herald angels sing,
“Glory!” to the newborn King.
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled.
Joyful all ye nations rise.
Join the triumph in the skies.
With angelic host proclaim,
Christ is born in Bethlehem.
Mild he laid His glory by
Born that men no more may die
Light and life to all He brings
Risen with healing in His wings
And if they do the instrumental version, I always chime in, and sometimes I can even get others to join. Fun. I particularly like that last stanza.
Contrary to what some Christians think and one pastor I heard venting, Merry Christmas isn’t a battle cry, but an announcement of peace and good will. The Crusades were not the glory days of Christianity, and the manger scene is not the new “In this sign conquer”. This one sermon has is that if someone greets you with “Happy holidays” that you “shouldn’t be belligerent or rude” but firmly and sweetly put forth that these are not happy holidays, but say “No, it’s Merry Christmas.” Huh? Do you really think that this person who has been on her feet for 8 hours in the busiest time of the year, ringing up gobs of junk for all the cut-throat shoppers is going to say, “Bad me. Bad me. I knew better. I’ll be good. Merry Christmas. I’m sorry.” I doubt it. And I’d bet the reason she said happy holidays was not so she could get a lecture, but so she could avoid one! How does she win? Maybe this might go better: She says, “Happy holidays”. You smile and say, “Merry Christmas. And keep the change.”
See, Christ’s advent was not an in-yer-face move. Not at all. He came silently, at night, as a fragile, little baby. “Holy infant so tender and mild” as one song has it. Amazing. And true. In fact, he snuck in. And once the kings of the world discovered the plot, they sought to have Him destroyed. So his parents did what? They ran and hid. In Egypt. And really, to marvel at the power of Christ is to marvel at restraint. God in the flesh dwelling with men? And men not frying? Amazing. Even at the pinnacle of his life, when He faced his accusers, he didn’t flex his spiritual muscle or assert his rights of Sonship. (Remember how He said he could’ve called 12 legions of angels? That’s about 80,000 angels. Whoa. Especially since 2 wiped out Sodom and Gomorrah, and 1 wiped out 70,000 people in Israel.) But He gave his fragile back to the flogging whips, his beard to those who plucked it out, and his body was crushed for you and me.
I offered my back to those who beat me,
My cheeks to those who pulled out my beard;
I did not hide my face
From mocking and spitting.
Christ truly did not come into the world to grab up all the power. He came to give it away. And the church is at her best when she is giving power away, not grabbing it up.
I must admit that all this controversy wasn’t my Christmas experience at all. Here’s one example.
I was in line at the post office. It was a long line. I was mailing a Christmas letter to one of our soldiers in Iraq that my daughter has been corresponding with. It was a long line, but I didn’t mind. It was like I wanted to savor the moment of sending this letter off. I didn’t know if it would get to him in time or not, but I knew that whenever he got it, it would really lift his spirit. Those young men get really discouraged wondering if anyone remembers they’re there…that is if anyone remembers they’re there who isn’t yelling how their lives are being wasted over there.
So, I was waiting in this line at the post. Did I mention it was a long line? Lots of people had packages. I smiled. I thought about where those packages must be going—to loved ones that are unable to get together for the holidays for whatever reason. This one lady was having trouble. How can I describe her? She was trim, designer sweats, form-fitting shirt, perfect hair, complete with highlights. The image of together. Except she had five kids between the ages of 2 and about 9. Maybe they were all hers. I don’t know. What I do know is that she was extremely frustrated with them. The older ones were opening the doors for people coming in and out (keeping the doors open way too long). The youngest two were running around and playing. She kept telling the older ones to shut the doors. The youngest two she finally grabbed, drug, and trapped against the counter with her legs. They kept trying to wiggle out—at first they thought this was a game, but after being jerked back a few times, they figured out that—no—they really were in jail. Meanwhile, she’s doing business with the postal clerk, who was a good natured man, patiently weighing and shuffling and doing the things postal clerks do. The little ones cried. And the more they cried, the more the woman set her jaw. The person behind me in line said, “Bet you’re glad they’re not yours.” I just smiled, but I thought, No, actually I’d take them. They are adorable, and good natured. These kids all seemed to care for one another. Honestly, I felt sorry for the kids. They were just doing what kids do. And really, it had made the atmosphere more like a kindergarten than a post office, but honestly, who cares? It wasn’t like anyone was trying to solve a math problem. I felt sorry for the woman, too. I know exactly what it’s like to be stuck for whatever reason with five kids and have things to accomplish. Been there. But that’s not the reason I felt sorry for the woman. I felt sorry for her because she wasn’t enjoying her children.
So I’m sitting in the line at the post office getting kind of emotional. When I got to the front of the line, I looked down at the little girl with the sad face and runny eyes and nose in jail and smiled at her. Her eyes got real big, and she hid behind her mom’s leg. I moved to the right so I could see her and smiled at her again. She moved the other way to hide again. I moved the other way again. We played this game for a while. She wasn’t crying now. She had this look of, “Who is this strange man who keeps following me and smiling at me?” One of the older kids saw us and felt obliged to tell me what was happening. “She has to stay right there.” I smiled at him and nodded that I knew.
My turn. The clerk who helped me was black, attractive, could’ve been a young grandmother. I told her I had this letter that was addressed to one of the soldiers in Iraq. She typed in the ZIP code, and then told me it was 37 cents, and asked if I wanted to buy a book or if I just wanted her to mail it for me. Oh. I thought it had to have something special to go overseas. She told me that most of the stuff going to the military is just regular postage. It goes to a US zip code and then the Army takes it from there to wherever it really goes. I guess that makes sense—then they don’t even have to reveal where someone actually is. Secrets and all that. I told her I’d buy a whole book of stamps. She asked me if I wanted one of the holiday collections, or a regular book. Oh! Cool. I chose the ones with Saint Nick and paid for them. After she made my change, I told her, “Merry Christmas.” She glowed and said, “Thanks, I needed that.” As I was putting my receipt and my change in my bag, I sort of mumbled through the tears I was holding back, “Don’t we all?” As I started to walk away, she said sweetly, “Merry Christmas.” I walked back to the car with tears welling in my eyes.
Leaving, I wondered why I was so emotional? That this was the first Christmas without my mom? All of my loneliness and rejection this year coming to a head? The thought of the soldiers trading Christmas with their families for a tour through the dust bowl in Iraq? All those packages going to all those separated family members by all those people in line? The lost joy of the children shuffled in with the hectic holiday rush? I never figured it out. I just knew that it was an odd mix of tears of joy and tears of sadness. Only yesterday did I realize what I had felt. I felt like I was an early Christian who had just drawn half the fish in the sand, and this woman, whom I had never met, drew the other half. Somehow in all this crazy, loud world we live in, all in a hurry to go nowhere, to do and get more of everything which comes to nothing, all this competition and selfish ambition that divides everyone, Christ showed up and sort of quietly winked at one white man and one black woman in a post office. In the middle of all this junk that hasn’t gone the way it was supposed to, Christ has a way of putting us back together, doesn’t He?