“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory… full of grace and truth.”
It is Christmas Eve of my growing up years. Long, cold nights are upon us. Earth has clothed her northern parts in the cover of darkness for the winter solstice. She rests in the long turn of the night, recalling once again, the holy darkness before the dawn of her first light.
And so it is with me as our mother tucks me in between the clean, fresh sheets – long after the candles of the midnight service at church have been snuffed out, long after our family of 3 children, Mom, Dad, Grandfather and Grandmother, crowded into our Great Aunt Hazel’s 1937 Buick, has come safely over the winding, hilly, icy country roads to our home. It is the wee, small hours of Christmas Eve. The lights are out, and the winter moonlight floods through the backyard door of my little room, giving my mother’s beautiful face a comforting glow as she sits on the edge of my bed. After prayers, there is a long stillness that Mom allows to linger, knowing that her youngest child sometimes holds the weight of the world in her heart. “Call me if you need me,” she says quietly as she leaves the room pulling the door only part way closed. But she knows that I will sing myself to sleep as I always do. It is a song that God must have sung to me before I was born, then sent me on a lifetime of singing it to a wounded world.
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” I hear our priest Grandfather boldly proclaim. “And we have SEEN His glory!”” He leans heavily into the word “SEEN” to be sure we understand that he was actually among the eye witnesses to this glory. But I am only going-on six, and I have not seen this glory with my own eyes. I know by Grandfather’s zeal in declaring it that this glory is very real. And I know by Grandmother’s Sunday school lessons that Jesus and His glory are one and the same. But how will I know him when I see him?
Tonight, as always, the song that I sing to God comforts me when I imagine that I am the only one in the world who will not recognize Jesus when he comes. My overly serious temperament makes me wary of acting cheerful when well-intentioned grown-ups give me hard red and white and green Christmas candy (which I dislike) or when the Junior Choir performs at the old age home (where I can’t sing because I am holding my breath for fear that, if I breathe, I will catch old age.) Though I love going to the Five and Dime where my sister and brother and I combine our Christmas allowances and buy the pack of multi-colored rubber bands that our Grandfather likes – so that he can send us to the mailbox at the end of the driveway with his letters safely bundled – I am far too worried that there are children in the world who are not getting presents to enjoy looking forward to presents myself.
You see, as a child, I am afraid that the place God’s song has opened my heart to – the place in my heart intended for the One to come at Christmas – will be filled with confusing expectations of a confusing world. I am afraid that there will be no room for Jesus who I want so badly to welcome into my heart.
And so, Christmas comes and Christmas goes. I do all of those things I am supposed to do with a tender and guarded heart. Church, Junior Choir Old Age Home Christmas visiting, tree gathering, present opening, dinner, company, and finally night.
Then it is time to go Christmas caroling around the circle (which is what we call the country road we live on.) The circle – where, in the springtime, I cross the little brook and discover the magic of putting a green leaf under the water and turning it to silver. Where the big brook leads to the pond where two summers ago, I learned to put my head all the way under and then miraculously could swim. Where we collect blackberries, some for eating and some for pies. The circle where I walk through the woods with my best friend, Gretchen from up the road, where she and I name the rocks and the trees and the clouds and where we are safe to name our secret fears. The circle that leads to the path to Mrs. Clarke’s house where my sister and brother make me walk ahead of them because they’re afraid of her fierce, little, barky dog Farmer and I’m not. Then down the Wolfe’s hill where my sister and I laugh ourselves silly giving each other out-of-control rides in outgrown baby-doll carriages, where we careen into the poison ivy which she gets and I don’t. The circle past the stretch in front of the Baker’s house where my brother lopes and flows down the road, tossing imaginary fly balls into the air, catching them in his beloved mitt, turning and faking a throw to put the guy out at third. Past “Plot #33,” the community ball field, where I am confident in my batting and catching but not my throwing, and where time spent playing ball is sometimes outweighed by time spent arguing life’s lessons in chipsies and do-overs and other matters we will one day call justice. It is finally Christmas night and it is time to go caroling around this well-worn circle.
We meet at the Simon’s driveway, bundled up, our breath magically showing in the frosty air. We are a motley crew – young and old, Jewish, Russian Orthodox, Quaker, Black, white, pacifists, hawks, Yankee fans, Brooklyn Dodger fans, some can sing and some sing anyhow. We do the traditional ones to warm up on, knocking on doors, singing, then, as we move on to the next house, congratulating ourselves on how many verses we know by heart. In all this singing, I am beginning to let go of my worried-about-not-knowing-Jesus-when-I-see-Him heavy heart. And anyway, I’m too busy trying to stay warm.
At last, on the far side of the circle, we arrive at the top of the Iverson’s hill. This is the hill it’s hardest to pedal up in the summertime, and the most daring to sled down in the winter’s snow. This is the hill where you can see the stars unencumbered by the tree tops or lights from nearby houses. And this hill is the place – the place where every year the heaviness in my heart leaves me, and there is room – a big, wonderful, safe room in my heart for the One Who Comes.
We stand very still. No one speaks. No one plans it. No one is anxious in the waiting silence, the long waiting silence. Then, in our Dad’s big, clear, tenor voice, out of the dark, cold night into the crisp, clear air it comes. “When I was a seeker, I sought both night and day, I asked the Lord to help me, and he showed me the way……Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. Go tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.” Soon we are all joining in on the chorus.
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying ‘Glory to God in the highest and Peace to God’s people on earth!” Suddenly I am standing among them – there on the Iverson’s hill, singing with the heavenly hosts the song God sang to me before I was born, then sent me on a lifetime of singing it to a wounded world.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory… full of grace and truth,” we hear in the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel. It is the joyous witness of the people of John’s time whose lives have been transformed by the One who was “in the beginning with God and was God,” active in creation, the source of light and life, who became incarnate in human flesh, making known the eternal God. Now as I recall this great proclamation in Grandfather’s booming voice, as I hear him testifying to being among those eye witnesses who “have SEEN his glory,” I understand what my child-heart knew and longed for all along – that Christmas can’t just be the historical event of Jesus’ birth celebrated in modern times. Rather the essence of the Christmas season and the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem is made manifest in this magnificent confession of faith about God’s presence and glory and grace for us and for all time. God’s glory “dwelt” among us, or in another translation, “tabernacled” among us. In other words, Christmas is Jesus pitching a tent among us so that we see, hear, and touch the living Word. Christmas is the Eternal making a forever home within us, revealing in our lives God’s redeeming love (which we know as God’s grace) and faithfulness to God’s promises (which we know as truth.).
Frederick Buechner writes that “our vocation is where our deepest gladness meets the world’s deepest need.” The song sung on the Iverson’s Hill is for me the vocational fulfillment of the Sunday school lesson Grandmother taught me and the witness Grandfather proclaimed. It is God coming among us as one of us making God’s deepest gladness known in a song for a weary world. Indeed, it is that song – born first in our hearts as love, then in our lungs as breath, and finally voiced with courage and hope as singing – that bears God’s flesh among our flesh, a song of God’s love for all humanity. A song to be sung over the hills and everywhere… that Jesus Christ is born.
It is a cold winter’s evening on the seminary Close in New York City. Three of us seminarians are gathered a few days after Christmas in the dormitory room of one of us to study for the General Ordination Exams. We are giddy in our anxiety and anticipation. As we settle into the evenings drill, the open heat duct of this cranky old 19th century building brings us the unwelcome and troublesome sounds of an unhappy family next door. We know that our neighbors are a young seminary couple and their only child. Under the stress of exams and unpaid loans, we are not surprised to hear the parents’ voices raised against each other in fierce complaint. And though we don’t know exactly what they are saying, the tones betray an argument of considerable magnitude. Seminary life is an exaggeration of real life. Real life has its own struggles. So we are not shocked. But we are troubled. There is a little girl over there, through the wall. No doubt she is absorbing the decibels as personal blows. That’s the way children are. Her silence is a plea through the vent. Her silence is a prayer. Please make this stop.
Something planted deep within me knows to answer her prayer. Something from the top of a hill that is hard to pedal up in summer and daring to sled down in winter… something from a snowy hill sheltered by unencumbered stars… something breathing life into my imagination, then into my heart, and then into my voice. We three seminarians huddle around the heat vent and we begin to sing. “Go tell it on the Mountain, over the hills and everywhere.” Soon the violence of the adult voices settles into silence – long, deep silence. And our voices’ harmony finds a cadence that comes to a silence of its own. And in the long, waiting silence of the musty heat vent, the echo of Dad’s voice singing out of the dark, cold night into the crisp clear air.
Howard Thurman writes:
“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers and [sisters,]
To make music in the heart.”
In the holy darkness before dawn of the earth’s first light, “The Word became flesh and pitched a tent among us,” that we might bear God’s song of redeeming love in a plentiful room in our hearts. When, as the God-bearing Body of Christ we sing, Jesus, the Love of God incarnate is with us in a world that begs for our singing. Then “the work of Christmas begins.” Singing on the snowy hills of the countryside and into the steamy vents of the city, we are God’s love alive in the world.
“Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. Go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born.”