Saturday, December 1, 2012

B52. Reclaiming the Christ Child

Have we lost the awe and wonder?

On Christmas Day 1863, amidst the backdrop of the American Civil War, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the words that would later become one of our beloved Christmas carols.  Two years earlier his wife had died tragically when her dress caught fire in their Massachusetts home.  And just a few months prior to this Christmas Day, his son, 17-year-old Charley, ran away from home, hopped a train, and joined President Lincoln’s army, where soon, as a soldier, he contracted typhoid fever and malaria and was shot in the shoulder and sent home to recover.  His father stayed by his bed for weeks, nursing him slowly back toward health.
On this Christmas Day, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the words to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”  Two verses, dealing specifically with the war, the hatred, and the thundering cannons, have now been omitted from the version we usually sing, but the first verses we have preserved reflect the hopelessness in Longfellow’s heart.  Longfellow on this Christmas Day was surrounded by the Christmas carols and all the festive sights and sounds of the season, but, also surrounded by war and sadness, the bells rang hollow and meaningless to his ears.  Empty joys, empty words.  He wrote these verses:

I heard the bells on Christmas day their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, good will to men.
And in despair I bowed my head: “There is no peace on earth,” I said,
For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.

This song brings tears to my eyes, not because I can personally relate to the horrors of war or the depth of Longfellow’s personal suffering, but because I too hear an emptiness in the sound of the bells.  I too see a mocking, almost a hypocrisy, in our songs of peace on earth, good will to men.   I see a Christian generation embittered by battles, trying desperately to hold onto the fading memory of the baby in the manger, and looking to blame others for losing him.  Yet we know that we are the keepers of the love born in Bethlehem, and that love, peace on earth, not blame or bitterness, is our entrusted key.

Perhaps we have celebrated so many Christmases that they have become routine and watered down in meaning to us.  We enjoy the family fellowship, the exchange of gifts, decorating our homes, the break from work and school, but does the remembrance of that first Christmas still bring wonder and awe to our souls?  Are we still amazed that a helpless little baby could be the swaddled love of God?  Are we still astounded by those who came to greet him?  We love the story and maybe even recite it from memory, but has it become so familiar to us that it has detached from our souls?  Have we unknowingly exchanged the true spirit of the Christ Child for just words of a sweet story we love to retell once a year?

If so, if true meaning has been lost, can we find it again? I think yes, with prayer.  The Christ Child was a gift of love, unselfish and unconditional love, love that knows no bounds.  And the message this baby would proclaim to the world was a message of sharing such love with all of humankind.  If we take the time to pray, not in mere words, but in the depths of our spirit, we will find that love within us.  It’s a compassionate love, a love that brings peace.  It will open our eyes to the wounds of those around us.  We will see our own reflections in the eyes of the oppressed.  We will remember those in our lives who are facing their first Christmas with an empty seat at the table.  We will remember those who are lonely every day of the year, but most painfully so during the holidays.  We will remember those who have lost their jobs or whose jobs have been cut back so much that Christmas gifts for the children will be difficult this year.  We will remember the coworker, the neighbor, the family member who needs a touch today.  We can reclaim the compassionate love that was given to us that first Christmas in Bethlehem.  It is meant to transform us.

Longfellow’s carol didn’t end in despair.  One of the final verses goes like this:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor does He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace of earth, good will to men.”

The peace is here.  The love of the Christ Child is not lost, but it is we, the followers of the Child, who have lost sight of it, and it is we who can bring it back.  May we this Christmas season remember the awe and wonder of Bethlehem.  May that wonder rekindle the true spirit of Christmas within us.  May the love and compassion of that first Christmas live anew in us, touching those around us with healing and grace.  For that is the meaning of the season.

An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” 
(Luke 2:9-14)


RuthAnn said...

Inspiring and challenging.

Kathy said...

Thank you, RuthAnn - I love hearing from you!

Joyce said...

That brought tears to my eyes Kathy. Thank you!

Kathy said...

Thank you, Joyce! Merry Christmas to you!

Joyce said...

Merry Christmas to you also Kathy!