Christmas Reflections


Fellowship Class

Tarrytown United Methodist Church

Dec. 19, 2004 (repeat from Dec. 20, 1998)

Wayne Danielson

Christmas Reflections

Mark 6:1-6.

Going from that district, he went to his home town and his disciples accompanied him. With the coming of the Sabbath he began teaching in the synagogue and most of them were astonished when they heard him. They said, Where did the man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been granted him, and these miracles that are worked through him? This is the carpenter, surely, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joseph and Jude and Simon? His sisters, too are they not here with us? And they would not accept him. And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is only despised in his own country, among his own relations and in his own house”; and he could work no miracle there, though he cured a few sick people by laying his hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.

Matthew 2:9-12. When they had heard the king, they departed; and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

Luke 2:8-14. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them; and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

John 1: 6-13. A man came, sent by God. His name was John. He came as a witness, as a witness to speak for the light, so that everyone might believe through him. He was not the light, only a witness to speak for the light. The Word was the true light that enlightens all men;and he was coming into the world. He was in the world that had its being through him,and the world did not know him. He came to his own domainand his own people did not accept him. But to all who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to all who believe in the name of him who was born not out of human stock or urge of the flesh or will of man but of God himself.

I Corinthians 12:4-11. There is a variety of gifts but always the same spirit; there are all sorts of service to be done, but always to the same Lord; working in all sorts of different ways in different people, it is the same a God who is working in all of them. The particular way in which the Spirit is given to each person is for a good purpose. One may have the gift of preaching with wisdom given him by the Spirit; another may have the gift of preaching instruction given him by the same Spirit; and another the gift of faith given by the same Spirit; another again the gift of healing, through this one Spirit; one, the power of miracles; another, prophecy; another the gift of recognizing spirits; another the gift of tongues and another the ability to interpret them. All these are the work of one and same Spirit, who distributes different gifts to different people just as he chooses.

We are awash in Christmas trees this year. One live tree is out on the upper deck. It does OK as long as I remember to water it.  An artificial tree is scheduled to go on the lower deck, as soon as I find it in the attic. Another live tree is halfway down the cliff, where I managed to plant it a couple of years ago. I’m not sure that I will decorate it this year.  The deer have been destroying a new tree I planted by the driveway. LaVonne didn’t want it there in the first place, and she has been known to look out the window and say “Go deer, go” when the young bucks come by and start cleaning their racks on it. Another tree is at LaVonne’s office. Two small portable trees move about the house as needed. They’re very handy, but the ornaments fall off easily and the dog wants to eat them. A big live tree that we’re thinking about decorating is wintering in the TV room. How many does that make? I don’t know. Our large formal tree adorns the library. This is LaVonne’s masterpiece. She invites her mother and her aunt and uncle to come and help decorate it on the weekend after Thanksgiving. It takes the three of them at least two days to get all the ornaments on that tree. Everything has to be done just right. My lack of artistic ability is widely acknowledged by everyone in the family, and I’m not invited to help as a rule. When the tree is done, however, and LaVonne’s mother has gone back to Fort Worth and her aunt and uncle have gone back to San Antonio, I move in and take over the library. I really enjoy just sitting in my big armchair and looking at the tree. I turn on the CD player. I punch random play, and as the Christmas music flows into the room, I just sit back and look at the tree, quietly letting my mind drift.

LaVonne often joins me in the library, but she is more active, less relaxed. She is more inclined to tinker with the tree, repairing errors in ornament placement made by her Mom. It’s a mother-daughter thing, I think. She moves a decoration here or rearranges a ribbon there. And she thinks aloud about what she can possibly do to improve the tree.”Do you think I should change that red ribbon?” she wants to know.“Which one?” I ask, thinking that the tree has lots of red ribbons.“The big one that runs from top to bottom,” she says, tartly.“It looks fine to me,” I reply.“I don’t know,” she says. “I think it needs to be changed. It’s just not right.”“Let it be, let it be,” I tell her, quoting an old Beetle’s song.She ignores me and goes back to her planning of Christmas. I go back into my vegetative state, just looking at the tree and dreaming. I suppose that looking at a Christmas tree is like looking at a work of art. You see in it what you bring to it. If you have one kind of personality you see one thing. If you have another kind of personality you see another.I can look at this ornament, for example, and see reflected in it my total experience with Christmas. I can see, for example, that old piano in the Sunday School room of West Hill Methodist Church up in Iowa, the one that had the key that didn’t work, the second D above middle C. Do you remember that story?In the Sunday School room of the little church I attended in Iowa as a child, we had a piano to accompany our songs. It wasn’t a new piano. It had some missing ivory, and some of the keys had jagged edges like sharks’ teeth. Someone had donated the piano to the church, and, to tell the truth, in the midst of the Great Depression, we were glad to have it.But our piano had a problem. The second D above Middle C didn’t work. And when the pianist came to that note, all she got was -- a kind of clunk.She was a conscientious woman, and she tried to choose songs that never used that note. We learned a lot of rare songs that way, and we got by most of the time. We took some pride in singing songs with four or five flats, songs most children had never heard of, songs without D’s.But we had difficulties. Sometimes a D would sneak into a song when you were least expecting it. Clunk. An embarrassing pause would ensue, and everyone would giggle. And Christmas was always a time of crisis because everyone insisted that we sing “Joy to the World” even though it is written in the key of D, has lots of D’s in it, and, worst of all, begins with a great descending scale starting -- you guessed it -- with our missing note. Our Sunday School music teacher, Louise Swan, would warn us, “Right after the shepherds enter wearing their pajamas -- I mean their robes -- we are going to sing “Joy to the World,” and no one is going to laugh. No one!”Well, we listened politely, but in our hearts we knew it was hopeless. And on the night of the program, in front of our parents and the minister and everyone, when the piano began to play “Clunk to the World, the Lord has come” we broke down in gales of helpless laughter.

It was years before I could hear that song without smiling. You see, something was basically wrong. Our teacher warned us. The pianist tried. We tried. But when everything was said and done, a clunk is a clunk. We were second best, not quite adequate. Something was missing.I look at that ornament, and I remember that piano and all the Christmas programs it accompanied.

I remember one Christmas in particular that changed my life. I was nine years old, and I had a leading role in the church play. It was called “The Three Golden Gifts.” It was set in Bethlehem, back at the time when Jesus was born. It was about a little boy who lives with his widowed mother. They have no money, and they are always hungry and cold. When the little boy hears that a baby has been born in the stable behind the old inn, he gets out his toys goes over there. He takes the only toys he has -- a top, a ball and funny looking rock to give to the Christ child. His mother comes after him, scolding. But he offers them anyway, and when the Christ Child sees the toys, he smiles, and they turn to gold. The little family is rich.It was a great role for a little boy from a poor family to play in the midst of the Great Depression. I could really get into the part.We rehearsed in the church. The church was poor too, and it was heated only on Sundays. We had to practice with our coats and mittens on. The Sunday School room was in the basement, and it was just above freezing. As the night of the Christmas play approached, I developed a cold. It got worse and worse, but I was determined to be in the play.On the night of the program I had a sore throat and a fever of 102. I went through the performance in a daze. When I came to the part where the toys turn to gold, I had about five seconds to walk behind a screen and wrap them up in gold paper and seal them with sticky tape. We hadn’t rehearsed this part, and the tape wouldn’t hold on the cold, metallic Christmas paper.I couldn’t make it stick.The other actors waited and waited, Miss Swan gave me a dirty look, and the girl playing Mother Mary gave me a really dirty look, and I had to go back out there with the miracle only half done. As I held the golden gifts up to the audience, the gold paper unfolded and the golden gifts began a slow metamorphosis back into the ordinary toys they had been before.The shepherds began to laugh, the angels began to giggle, and I began to cry.To this day, I’m not sure how I managed to finish that performance.But somehow I croaked out my final lines, and all of us got our boxes of Christmas candy and went home. By the next morning, I had come down with what was later diagnosed as rheumatic fever. I had to stay in bed until sometime in March. There were no antibiotics then, and the basic treatment for rheumatic fever was to put the patient in bed and see whether he lived or died.Thanks to the determined nursing of my mother, I made it, but I had heart damage, and my life was permanently changed. I would be in a wheelchair for another three months. I would be shorter than my brothers. There would be no football or baseball games in my future, no bicycle riding for a long time, no swimming, no dancing. The common fun things of childhood were permanently forbidden. Because I had missed long division in school, I would have to repeat the entire fourth grade, something that neither I nor Miss Holstein looked forward to. Taking part in the Christmas play that year had turned into a personal disaster.

As I look into the ornament and remember that Christmas, I also remember how I adjusted to my changed life -- How I read all the books in the school library -- How I learned to play the violin -- How I learned not to run through the woods, but to sit under the trees and watch and listen, and discover how everything worked together, what the squirrels and the birds said to one another. I am probably one of the few people in this room who can understand squirrel talk. I changed from being a fighter to being a peacemaker. In time, I became a new person, a new Wayne, the one I’m still working on. All things considered, it was not that bad, that Christmas that changed my life.Musing and dreaming in front of LaVonne’s wonderful tree, I remember all that and much more. And in my dreaming, it seems to me that my experience must be what it was like in the first century as people sat and thought about who Jesus was and what his life meant. It must have been a similar thing. People tended to see in the “Christ event” (as theologians like to call it) what they themselves brought to the experience.Mark, the earliest gospel writer, didn’t know exactly who Jesus was or what he meant. He saw in his life and death and resurrection something fantastic, something amazing, something mysterious. He wasn’t sure what it was, but he knew that something tremendous had occurred. He was sure that Christ’s coming had changed the world, and he wanted the whole world to know all about it. He wanted people everywhere to think about Christ’s story as he did, every day. And so he wrote it all down, everything he could remember.

When Matthew came along a few years later, things had become a lot clearer, and Matthew was happy to take Mark’s story and retell it, making what was to him the obvious explanation: Jesus was the messiah. And Judaism had simply missed his coming, had just watched his life go by unnoticed for the most part. In his role as a teacher and historian, Matthew lined up chapter and verse from the scriptures. In effect he said, “All the sacred writings told you what was happening. Jesus was the fulfillment of prophesy. How could you have missed it? Other people recognized Jesus. Even three wise men came from the east to find him and worship him and give him gifts. Where were you?” Matthew was convinced that Jesus was the messiah. And he wanted everybody to get with the program.Later on, when Luke wrote his book, he had still another point of view. He thought people had missed the meaning of the Christ event because the life of Jesus looked so ordinary on the surface. For example, Jesus was so poor nobody paid attention to him. He was so poor he was born in a stable over in Bethlehem. Can you imagine it? -- the messiah born in a stable? His birth was so ordinary that God’s angel had no option except to announce it to a bunch of shepherds! But look what happened when he did. The whole heavens opened and the multitudes of God’s angels appeared to praise the birth of this one baby. Luke seemed to say in his writings, “The life of Jesus may have seemed ordinary, but underneath, it wasn’t ordinary at all. It was miraculous. You may have missed it at the time,” Luke seemed to say, “but you can see it now, can’t you? You can see that even making a loaf of bread is a miracle. Jesus taught us that, and you can see it, I’m sure. I’m sure you can.”John didn’t write his book until the end of the first century, and he had still another point of view. Everybody knew the Jesus story by then. But what does the Christ event matter if you just read about it and don’t believe it? He seems to say, “If you believe in it, this event can change your whole life. Jesus was no ordinary person. He was the light of the world. Believing this opens the way to a new life in this world and the next. This man Jesus was the only begotten Son of God, and he offers to show us the way to salvation and eternal life. Believe. Let Christ come into your life and change it.”Paul sees something else. Paul is actually an early writer, but his letters are placed at the end of the New Testament because of the radically different view he expresses. He rarely quotes Jesus. He rarely teaches us anything about the life of Jesus. Although Paul became a believer, he did not, in fact, alter his basic approach to life all that much. He was always a man of action. Before and after his conversion, his concern was the same. He seemed to say, “Well, now that we know about Jesus, what are we going to do about it?” Fortunately, Paul always had a plan to go someplace and do something. Through his words and deeds he said to his followers: “What we need to do is spread the word. We need to build churches. We need to encourage the Greeks and Romans worship in them. They don’t need to worry about obeying all the old laws. We’ll just set up some simple rules about what people can and cannot do -- women can’t go to church without a hat, for example. We can’t allow that. Above all, we need to start helping those people who need help. When I pass the collection plate, I want you to put something in it for the widows and orphans of Jerusalem.”

That was Paul. He was a great doer. With his energy and willingness to travel, he did more than anyone else to start spreading Christianity across the known world. Though the Bible tells us only of his work in the eastern Mediterranean, legend has it that before he died, he had made it all the way to Spain.

Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul all saw something different. Oh, they all told the same story. But as they told it, they brought to it their own understanding of its meaning. The roughneck Mark saw the raw, mysterious glory of God. The scholarly Matthew saw prophecy being fulfilled. The imaginative and poetic Luke saw God revealed in the simple things of daily life – bread and wine and water and friendship. The mystic John saw Jesus as the light of the world that commanded everyone to believe and to serve. And the missionary Paul, recognizing the need to straighten out this burgeoning bunch of believers to help the poor, brought order out of chaos for the good of the infant churches.

What do you see in these varying accounts? Christmas is a good time to think about that, isn’t it? Today, nearly two thousand years removed from that first Christmas, we can read these holy words and think about their meaning in people’s lives then and our own lives now. I like to sit by the tree and dream dreams about all the Christmases past and Christmases present and Christmases yet to come and try to understand it all. LaVonne does that too, but on a more practical note, she thinks about what needs to be done right now to make this a better Christmas for everyone. And she probably would like to have a little more help from me on that project.

I had better get going. There’s a lot to be done at this time of the year. Have a merry Christmas, everyone. Remember those in need. And let me close with this little Christmas poem:

In this reflecting globe I see all that Christmas means to me --The lights, the colors, red and green,The tinseled garland’s friendly sheen. The children crying out with joyOn finding a desired toy,The dog curled up beside the fire

Listening to the Mormon choir.

The candles lighted on the stairs,The glass of wine so kindly shared,The Cowboys playing rather lame -O no! – They’ve lost another game.

The families who need a hand

To make their Christmas something grand,

The older folks who need a ride

To be in church at Christmastide.

And loved ones whose hearts overflow with sweet affection’s quiet glow, Recalling Christmases before,And those to come forever more.