Thursday, December 24, 2015

Happy Christmas (War is Over)

Happy Christmas (War is Over)
We need to put the Christ back in Christmas I am told. We need to keep Christ out of the marketplace they say. The War On Christmas is back, they shout. As I ponder these things as we are told Mary ponders things in her heart I surprise myself as I find myself joining in a Scroogian, "Bah! Humbug!"

I may as well admit it: for years I would agonize on what to say on Christmas Eve. It needs to be just right to reach everyone, to touch hearts and set them on fire, to bring the Good News of Christmas alive. I would try so hard sometimes I would make myself sick - literally feverish, bed-ridden sick at just the thought of standing in front of a church full of parishioners, visitors, family and even total strangers, some just by the look in their eyes seeming to say, "Go ahead, try to make me care about this. Yes, I would rather be at, fill in in the blank: home, the party we had to leave early, the corner bar where everyone knows my name, out on the slopes....Give it your best shot!”

So just as I was beginning the annual panic attack I found myself in Towson, MD, with time to kill. Can you really kill time, you might ask? Does time even exist I might reply. So I grabbed a book, The Mood of Christmas, by Howard Thurman, long time chaplain at both Howard and Boston Universities, and an influential African American writer, theologian and civil rights leader.

I sat down at a small table in what used to be called Kenilworth Bazar and I think is now The Shops At Kenilworth. People were bustling around, buying gifts, looking at the magnificent Christmas Garden model trains, buying and eating slices of Pizza (note to self, be sure to get a slice soon), checking out Joe Bank for dads and the Fells Point Surf Shop, one of several pop-up shops for the holiday.

Thurman writes that Christmas is a mood, a quality and a symbol more than an historical event. The mood is set by thoughts and memories of people here and gone, an angel that crosses one's path, an iridescence that radiates sheer delight throughout the whole world. The quality is the fullness with which fruit ripens or flowers blossom, or a sunset over the mountains seen from the shores of the lake beneath. And the symbol is the brooding presence of the Eternal Spirit making crooked paths straight, rough places smoothed, tired hearts refreshed, while dead hopes stir with newness of life.

I think of my mother who moved on before Christmas last year. I was a confederate in her modest ritual of hope every week: "Please get me a ticket for the Mega Million this week. It’s up to 223 Million this week."  Dutifully I would purchase one for her and one for myself. We understood the odds, but someone has to win, right? It is as close as we ever had to an eschatolgical conversation, but it did sustain a modicum of hope however misplaced it might have been.

As I ponder all this I notice first a group of three, then another of four teenage girls walk by. These, however, are not the usual customers of the Bazar, but rather they all have those small white lace caps and long skirts Mennonites wear, with modest sneakers. No Jordan's to be seen. I look up to see more and more of these young women clutching what look like tattered music folders, while a group of young men set up a stage and sound system. Soon the mall is awash with the sounds of Oh Come All Ye Faithful from about 75 young men and women.

I ask a bearded gentleman nearby where they are from and he says, 'Lancaster, PA. They are going on from here to Keswick Care, The Helping Up Mission and other stops around Baltimore.  "Oh come, let us adore him, oh come let as adore him...." I think, where is this War on Christmas I keep hearing about? It was on the Opinion page of The Sun the other day. Angel sounds from girls in lace caps and boys in Dockers and jeans. No, there is no war on Christmas. He is here in the marketplace, he is here in their singing, he is here in the people who stop eating pizza to stand and do nothing but listen for however long it takes for the Lord to touch us.

"Glory to God in the Highest!" Suddenly without warning the mall is transformed into a mood, a quality, a symbol of Christmas. It is suddenly a way of being. It is a way of being not in the church, but beyond the doors of the church into the ordinary hum-drum activity of people anxiously scurrying about to get ready for the Big Day! Those church doors marked, by order of the Fire Marshall, "Exit" ought to read, "Entrance," for it is beyond those doors Christ calls us to enter the mission field, his people sent, apostles and proclaimers of the Good News of God in Christ by word and deed; everything we say and everything we do.

It is a way of being that is faithful to our story. Why is the story written the the way it is anyway? A couple, at least temporarily homeless, she pregnant, he looking for kinsfolk to put them up. The kid grows up not as a great and reputable citizen of Rome, but rather a non-citizen, a typical Jew, yet atypical in that he intentionally sits to share meals with tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, sinners and outcasts of every possible kind. What I am thinking is that if you wanted to make up a story that would really convince people that he is the Son of God wouldn't you make it up with a more majestic story line?

But this is the God of the marketplace after all. "Repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy, repeat, repeat the sounding Joy!" Listen to these young people. They get on a bus all the way from Lancaster, PA, to perform this pop-up concert among the pop-up shops so that their love of Jesus can suspend time and space for a few moments. So that hearts will be touched, and people moved, and love and hope abound. He is here. He is always here in the market place. As one wag put it, just when you think the last word in the last sentence about Jesus has been read or spoken, someone in the back row stands up, raises a hand and says, "But what about....." The truth about Jesus is not that we can never be through with him, but in fact he is never through with us!

As I hear the familiar carols, as I think about my mother and father and sister and grandparents and aunts and uncles and Christmases past, as I think of all those agonizing nights before the night before Christmas, I realize that were Christ to come back right now, right here, right this minute he would not have one iota of interest about putting Christ back in Christmas! I believe he would be moved to see his mood, his quality, his symbols of hope and care and love for others, all others, alive and well in the marketplace and in the hearts of all those who know him, and more importantly, are known by him! He is all around us all the time, that in fact is the Good News! He is not finished with us yet!

Know my sisters and my brothers, Jesus calls you to be with him wherever you are
He calls you to know, he is here, even now
He calls you to do something beautiful with your life and bear much fruit
The World needs you, The Church needs you, Jesus needs you
They all need your love and your light
There is a hidden place in you heart where Jesus lives
This is a deep secret you are called to live
Let Jesus live in you! Go forward with him!

Since he promises to be with us always, to the end of the age, there is no way that he cannot be in Christmas. He is always in Christmas no matter what, and in every other day as well. Look around this room. Look around the mall. Wherever you look he is there and The Mood of Christmas is eternal.

Merry Christmas. God bless us everyone. Amen.

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