Well, it’s that week again. Yes, that week. The week before final exams at the local university. The week which annually brings the busloads of old people from the neighboring retirement Mecca to our little town. Soon folks will be standing in the cold up to an hour early, waiting for the huge wooden doors of the Cathedral to open, just so they can stream into the beautiful sanctuary and sit on uncomfortable wooden benches for more than two hours. What threats could induce them to endure the icy wait? What punishment are they attempting to avoid by sitting on the hard seats for hours? What penalty can be circumvented by squeezing into small spaces with people they don’t know, maybe even some with communicable diseases? (I’ve heard the coughing and sneezing that goes on during these ordeals!) Well…none, it would seem. They appear to enjoy the process. They even thrive on the overcrowded, uncomfortable seating arrangement and they do it with smiles on their faces; singing as the hours pass. I am, of course, speaking of the annual Candlelight Carol Service; an event in which I’ve participated for more years than I care to think about.
I thought my years of preparation for this musical introduction to the Christmas season were at an end. I’ve actually missed the last two years, once due to the onset of my own annual event; cold-weather asthmatic bronchitis, which renders me incapable of playing the French Horn. (This, of course, is my instrument of choice with which to torture the listeners.) Then, last year, I was successful in rejecting all entreaties to join in, believing that I had succeeded in ending my years of being an active part of this event. I’m not sure how it occurred, but, once again, I find myself in the days before the Service, which is repeated for three evenings, wondering if I’m prepared, worrying about my wardrobe (a subject seldom on my mind), and fighting off another impending attack of the unwanted asthma. I expected to be dreading the upcoming ordeal, but I am actually looking forward to it, disappointed that I am not feeling as well as I was when I agreed to be a part of the ensemble.
What is it about this particular happening that makes a couple thousand folks want to come and be a part of the uncomfortable, but joyous, crowd? Is it anticipation of something new and innovative every year? Are they expecting to see a light show and hear unusual, avant-garde sounds from the instruments and choir? No, they’re not, although there was a period of time some years ago when that was the case for this event. The crowds thinned and dwindled, feeling that they had been cheated. Then someone realized that this time of year is more about traditions and the same ancient story woven into the well-worn traditions. The old carols returned, along with a few new ones, introduced tastefully, and the crowds grew again. The preparation is staggering in its intensity; the choirs and ensembles putting in hours and hours of rehearsal time. The choice of each selection is made carefully, to give a harmonious (non-musically speaking) message, all blending into a time of praise and joyful celebration of the greatest gift ever given to mankind. I am humbled to be able to share a tiny part in the program. I hope I fulfill my part successfully. But, even if I don’t, the folks who come to cram into the hard,wooden benches will leave with full hearts and an intense sense of the immensity of God’s love for humankind. I pray it will ever be so.
Even as I approach the slightly stressful evenings to follow this week, I’m looking past to the season which still stretches out in front of me. I sat and groused as the Lovely Lady decorated the house for the season last night. I don’t think the words, “Bah, Humbug!” crossed my lips, but they might as well have. That such a joyous time of year should come in the midst of the season I dislike intensely is most contradictory. Dreary days, cold temperatures, and this morning…snow on the ground! What’s to be happy about? I’m better now. I’ve given myself a talking to; reminded myself of the meaning of the upcoming holiday, and opened my eyes (and heart) a little. Oh. The decorated house is beautiful too! I make no promise for the weeks to come, but at least for tonight, I’ve got my blinders off, the “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” song (I love Linda Ronstadt’s vocals!) no longer playing in my head.
I’m still puzzled at how the celebration of such an intensely selfless act has turned into a season of selfishness. All around me, I hear it. “I hate Christmas carols!” “How dare they tell me ‘Happy Holidays’? I won’t shop here again!” There were fights in WalMart on “Black Friday”. Fights! Over Christmas gifts! Gifts which are going to be given in celebration of the Greatest Gift. How did we get here from there? How is it acceptable for us to be unkind, to be rude, to be crude…all in the name of “Keeping Christ In Christmas”? Was there ever such an incongruity?
The other day, I completed a phone conversation with a caller to the music store. I thought before the words came, but I said it anyway. “Happy Holidays!” It seems to me to be a little early to say, “Merry Christmas!” and I’m still not quite sure what that means anyway, so I opted for the more time encompassing and slightly generic phrase. But, all around me, friends are willing to be offensive in insisting that “Merry Christmas” be the standard greeting of the season. Do they think that somehow, the heart of this joyous season is going to be ripped out if we don’t hear the words said over and over again, without, I might add, any intent on the part of the greeter to communicate any spiritual truth, whatsoever? To avoid the travesty of losing an obscure greeting, we are willing to be hateful, to be rude, to refuse to do business with any store which uses the detestable replacement greeting. I’m wondering how this communicates the message of the season, the message of unconditional love, of concern for our enemies, of forgiveness for an entire planet full of sinful humans. Don’t we rather, communicate hate, arrogance, and distaste for those who haven’t yet experienced the forgiveness and love of a Savior? How can we go out armed with angry words and yet, be witnesses of the Savior’s birth and it’s intended impact on the human race?
Do you think it is time for me to get off of my soap box? Okay, if someone will bring me a step-ladder, I’ll clamber down. I’m guessing that you have opinions, too. They probably don’t match mine, and that’s okay. We’ll make it through anyway. Hopefully, we can be loving in expressing our differences, especially with the heightened attention on who we are because of that amazing, selfless act of our God, and His Son, all those many Christmases ago. I’m hoping that all of us are ambassadors of that love throughout the year, but this year I am making this season a time when I personally resolve to be doubly vigilant; to guard my tongue and to open my heart. I hope that you’ll be right beside me, giving the real Gift of Christmas!
Oh! Maybe you could find a little time to enjoy a local production of beautiful Christmas music, too. It will improve your spirits, I promise. Crowd right in there next to a stranger and share the season. But, keep your cold to yourself!
“…Fear not. For behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. Unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
(Luke 2: 10, 11)
“…God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame.”
(Elizabeth Barrett Browning~English poet~1806-1861)