Good Tidings of Great Joy

And so it begins.

Every year, as the days grow short and the nights grow long, as the sun fades and its warmth recedes, a pageant of negativity plays out driven by the faithful of very literal-minded conservative churches: it is the annual denial of Christmas.

Every year, articles will be written, fingers will be pointed, sermons will be preached, tongues will be clucked in abject scorn against those who would add to the plagues written in the book by choosing to honor the birth of the Son of God.

“We don’t know when he was born!”  “It certainly wasn’t in December!” “We weren’t commanded to remember his birth!” “Christmas is just a re-tooled pagan solstice holiday!”

I’ve heard all of the arguments.  And I’ve made most of them myself.

But no more.

While Christians are commanded to remember Jesus’ death with every observance of the Lord’s Supper, we must never forget that there could have been no death without him first being born.  If we are to make so little of Jesus’ birth, why were so many words, both prophetic and reportage, wasted on detailing the circumstance of his nativity?  If there had been no incarnation, there could have been no temptation to experience all things that we mortals contend with.  He could not have been a capable high priest to intercede for us if he didn’t know what we face.  The fact that Jesus became one of us is indeed a most fundamental reason to rejoice.

In fact, there were celebrations at his birth ranging from a multitude of the heavenly host all the way down to a lowly group of shepherds, and all noted by a young mother who treasured all of the things that had transpired in her heart.

Luke 2.8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9  And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.

10  And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  11  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  12  And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

13  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

15  When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16  And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17  And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.  18  And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.  19  But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.

20  And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

But there is the issue of not being directly commanded to celebrate Jesus’ birth.  Well, did Jesus celebrate feasts and holy days that were not scripturally authorized?  John 10 says he did.  There, it is noted in verse 22 that Jesus was in Jerusalem during the Feast of Dedication, a feast to celebrate the rededication of the Temple following the Maccabees’ defeat of an invading army nearly two centuries before Jesus’ ministry.  That Feast of Dedication is identified with the Jewish festival of Hanukah, which does indeed occur during winter, and because of its more recent commemorative antecedent, logically was not included in the catalog of commanded holy days as written in the Law.

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As I think about Jesus’ earthly beginnings, I often try to imagine what he must have been like as a child.  Haven’t you ever wondered what Jesus must have been like as a baby, as a toddler, as a rough and tumble youngster who was at home with laborers as well as lawyers?  He must have been a handful.

That reminds me of one of the most captivating of modern-era Christmas songs, Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene’s “Mary Did You Know?”  From the first time I heard it—I think it was Kenny Rogers’ and Wynonna Judd’s version, or maybe the great Kathy Mattea’s, I can’t rightly recall—I was completely enthralled by it.  The premise of querying Jesus’ mother in what amounts to a synopsis of his miraculous ministry was nothing short of inspired.  One verse captures the reason for the incarnation in succinct and unmistakable terms:

“Did you know

that your Baby Boy has come to make you new?

This Child that you delivered will soon deliver you.”

I have loved the music of the Christmas season for most of my life, even though I was afraid to admit it for fear of reprisals from the faithful.  Music speaks to our very souls, and the joyfulness of the songs extolling the birth of this humble servant-king cannot be under-estimated.  “Joy to the World.”  “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”  “O, Holy Night.”  “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”  Each one filled with joy, with reverence, with thankfulness for the coming of the Son of God.

While the date in December (or January, by Greek and Eastern Orthodox standards) was dubiously fixed by over-zealous monks seeking practically numerological significance to calendar events, the actual date is of little importance.  That he was born is enough to celebrate.  That he taught peace and forgiveness and mercy and would pay for his revolutionary teachings with his sinless life is reason to rejoice.

The prophet Isaiah said, “9.6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  7 Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”

Of the ancient songs and carols of the season, the hauntingly beautiful “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” may just be my favorite, and it echoes the message of Isaiah.  Some sources place the text’s origin in the 12th century, while others trace hard evidence of the Latin lyrics to 1710.  Whenever it was written, the sentiment is one of anticipation of the coming of Jesus, with the admonition in each stanza to rejoice for the promised liberation, for the comfort of God indeed being with us.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

The 19th century English poet, Christina Rossetti, penned a poem that would become the lyrics of another beautiful carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”  Yes, I know, Jesus was not likely to have been born in winter, shepherds in the fields and all that.  But perhaps the Bleak Midwinter was the sunless depth of a bleak point in human history, when life and freedom were oppressed by the crushing weight of occupying armies.  When that darkest time had arrived, a beacon of heavenly light emerged promising better life.  Despite Rossetti’s temporal setting in winter, the response of the observer is of much greater importance.  The fourth stanza says,

What can I give him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;

yet what I can I give him: give my heart.

When considering the significance of Jesus’ arrival into the realm of time and space and humanity; when considering his role as teacher of peace and love and restoration; when considering his sacrifice that there might be reconciliation of a fallen creation with its creator, there must be a response. Jesus’ call to his first disciples was, “Follow me.”  And they did.  They gave him their hearts and minds and bodies and their very souls.  Like Rossetti, poor as we humans may be, even giving our hearts, the well of our own love and compassion and reason and will, all that makes us truly us, in exchange for the gift of living water and the bread of life seems so meager, so insubstantial, so insufficient.  But it is an acknowledgment of that wonderful, amazing grace.  And by Heaven’s accounting, it is enough.

Whoever Knows the Right Thing to Do

Another semester has come to a close.

And as usual, I am drained and exhausted beyond measure.  I am exhausted because agonize over whether I was effective in getting my message across.  I agonize over grades, fully realizing that my actions and judgments affect the lives and futures of my students.  I always wonder how students can leave an exam completely oblivious to how they performed on it, and then irately contact me when they think they deserve a higher grade.

Another thing that exhausts me is dealing with those students that choose to engage in academic dishonesty.  I have little sympathy for the ones who engage in egregious infractions of a standard code of academic integrity.  It always feels like a personal affront when people cheat instead of try.  All students enter my class as equals, with my respect for them intact.  I hate that breach of faith that destroys an otherwise decent human interaction.

But something that hurts me worse than all else is something that I learned the last week of classes as I was making my way back to my office after my last lecture on Wednesday afternoon.  I started across the quad, pulled out my phone to check my messages, and was immediately met with the news that a student in another of my classes had completed suicide.

I was devastated.  I almost felt like I would collapse on the sidewalk.  I felt sick.  And helpless.  And I felt like I had failed.

I mean, after all, I’ve been trained in suicide prevention.  I thought after leading sessions on prevention, I would be ready for dealing with suicide, and I was going to be ready to help change the world.  But that just made me cocky and a little too self-assured.  Or deep down, maybe I just thought I’d never need to use it.    

In this case, I saw none of the signs that we are supposed to look for.  This quiet, bright young man apparently quietly suffered with depression.  He was bent on completing the only thing that he thought would end his pain. 

But in his state of confusion, he, like so many others who choose suicide, failed to account for the pain he would leave behind.  I can’t imagine the pain his family is dealing with right now. 

I barely knew the young man, as my only interaction with him was in the classroom.  But I have spent hours wondering what I might have been able to do to help him.  Why didn’t I expend the effort to get to know him? Why didn’t I give the talk I often give about suicide prevention in that class?  Why didn’t I let him know I was there to listen, and that I cared about him and that I wanted him to live?

But I kept my professorial distance.  

And I will forever be haunted by those questions.

I have written on many occasions about the need for learning more about how to help people with suicidal thoughts.  That has not changed.  We still need to know what to look for and be willing to ask the hard questions and reach out to them.  More than ever, I affirm my belief in Donne’s stirring declaration, that “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

I do feel diminished, but resolute that I must be more accessible to those in pain. I must be more empathetic.  I must be more compassionate. 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made. No individual or nation can stand out boasting of being independent. We are interdependent.”  This is the goal: to achieve fulfillment as a human being, I must fully become part of humanity.  To take my place in the fullness of the human experience I must help others to achieve all that they can be. 

According to the biblical author, James, who some say was the brother of Jesus himself, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” (James 4.17) Therefore, from the position of faith, I must do what I can to help others, I must alleviate suffering, I must be willing to carry a weight.  To do any less is to sin against my own humanity, against all humanity, and by extension, its Creator.

Another semester is done.  But there is so much left to do.  I resolve to leave less unsaid and less good undone.  Life is too short to shy away from uncomfortable situations.  I hope that I will not someday look back on my life with regrets for lost opportunities to make a difference.  I hope that I can say and others can see that I did what I could; not for my own glory, but because of my understanding and acceptance of what it means to be made in the image of God, to show love and grace and mercy.

I must be better.  And while I may not be able to do it all, I know that through a strength born of faith and a fuller resolve to channel Heaven’s grace, I can do more to help others, and do it more effectively.  I know the good I can do.

Now it’s time to get to work.