Sunday, December 25, 2016

The fading wonder of Christmas

I remember when Christmas was an easy holiday to believe.

It was easy to believe as a child, but that's no surprise. The world is already wondrous and strange when you're a child. I once told my youngest daughter that a mermaid named Bathilda lives on the nearby college campus and gets her mail from a turtle, and she believed me. Compared to that, it's a piece of cake to believe story about angels, a newborn baby and three wise men who found him by following a star.

When I turned 18 and awakened to faith in a way that I never had before, Christmas became even more wonderful. For the first time I understood properly what the holiday was about. I started to grasp the mystery of the Incarnation, that the Almighty God too vast to be measured had somehow become a baby who weighed about 6 pounds.

A being who had spoken the universe into existence, whose very word had set the stars spinning through the heavens; brought forth fish in the sea, animals on the ground, and birds in the air; had become helpless, with no way of caring for himself. He had to cry when he was hungry, or sick, or tired; and he had to rely on two confused parents to sort out what he needed and to take care of him.

A God who had dug up the earth with his hand, sculpted a man from the clay, and breathed life into him, now had become a man.

It was amazing. It was inspiring. It filled me with awe. It gave me chills.

Some time in the past twenty-eight years, some of that has slipped away.

I know what some will say: that one day Faith walked down a road she should not have, and there she met Doubt. She fled the highwayman, but not before he had attacked and injured her. If Faith returns to friendlier quarters she is sure to recover, but if she stays where she is, then it's only a matter of time until Faith dies.

Or as someone once put it, “When I was a child, I thought like a child, I spoke like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.”

The Christmas story is no longer as easy to believe as it once was, because the story of Jesus no longer seems as unique as it once did. There are stories from all over the ancient world about dying gods and god-men, miracle workers and would-be saviors, with similarities to the Christ story.

In one story, widely told and widely believed in the Roman Empire, there was a god who was born in a cave on Dec. 25. Born of no human father, he came to save the people from death and sin. His name was Mithras.

The ancient Greeks worshiped a different god, whose father was the almighty king of heaven. He was killed unjustly, but raised to life again; and ever afterward his worshipers commemorated his death and resurrection by eating bread and drinking wine. He was Dionysus, although the Romans called him Bacchus.

And on it goes.

None of the stories is an exact match for Jesus. Mithras was never crucified, for instance; and Dionysus, while born of a human mother and Zeus, was no virgin birth. Still, for all that, it's easy to see how one story could pick up elements of another, or how religious holidays celebrated around the same time of year or around similar themes would affect each other.

This is a process called syncretism, and it happens all the time. It's how Christmas gained traditions like lighting the Yule log, it's why Santa Claus for a while looked like Odin and still lives up North and hands out presents like Odin did, and it's why Hanukkah has become such a big thing in the United States. Syncretism was one of the things the biblical prophets saw as a tremendous danger to the proto-Judaic religion.

Aside from syncretism, some questions come from the Christmas story itself. The virgin birth is so foundational to Christmas that Tim Keller recently asserted in an interview with Nicholas Kristoff that it's as essential as the Resurrection. You can't be a Christian, he argues, without believing in it.

But while Matthew and Luke both mention the virgin birth, the gospels of Mark and John give it a pass. Luke has an angelic visitor tell Mary what's coming, while Matthew claims there was a prophecy in the book of Isaiah that the virgin would conceive and bear a son.

A 750-year-old prophecy about the virgin birth of Jesus has got to count as a slam dunk, except for one problem. The prophecy wasn't originally about Jesus, and it never specifies a virgin birth. The Hebrew word is almah, which means “young woman.” It could mean virgin, but that's a stretch. There's not a serious linguistic scholar without a doctrinal dog in the fight who considers such a translation responsible. It's not the primary, secondary or even tertiary definition of the word.

The only way Isaiah prophesied that virgin would give birth is if he prophesied in Greek. I say that because the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, uses the word parthenos, and that unmistakably does mean virgin.

So yes, there's a virgin birth promised here, but only if you're relying on a questionable translation, as apparently the writers of both Matthew and Luke's gospels did.

And on it goes. In our imaginations and devotions we often like to blend the canonical gospels together into one seamless whole, but in doing so we overlook important and telling differences among them. Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience, so his gospel is filled with passages that he cites as fulfilled prophecies. Some of them are quite a stretch, one to the point that no one is entirely sure what he was talking about.

Meanwhile, Luke wrote for a Greek audience accustomed to affirmations from the heavens that presaged important events. His gospel includes an angelic visitor to Mary to declare her pregnancy, and a host of angels appearing over Bethlehem to announce the birth.

Enough of this and the Christmas story not only loses a bit of its luster, it becomes the Christmas stories. They're beautifully told, full of unquestionable literary value, and containing a message of supreme value -- but they're very much stories.

And yet. And yet …

In “Down Among the Dead Men,” writer Alan Moore once observed: “There are people. There are stories. The people think they shape the stories, but the reverse is often closer to the truth.”

The story I tell is this: “One day Faith walked down an unfamiliar road, and there she met Doubt. At first she mistook him for a highwayman, and she fled and hid.

“But Doubt was persistent and found her, and after they had spoken a while she realized that he was not an enemy, but a friend who wanted what she did. And she knew at once that if they continued the journey together, then not only would she make it to the end, but it would be a far more rewarding and satisfying journey than if she had tried it alone.

“So Faith quieted her fears and took Doubt's hand, and together the two pilgrims set out on the road to find their destination. They've had their problems, but they've always faced them together, and they've always overcome them.”

Christmas is the season when we believe that the unchanging Tao changed forever. At the first Christmas in Bethlehem, the eternal Tao became mortal, with a fixed beginning point and an endpoint, even as the line of its existence continues infinitely beyond those points.

The Tao that cannot be understood assumed dimensions, senses, affections and passions. It subjected itself to the same diseases that we suffer, and allowed itself to be warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as us.

Even after all these years, that message still fills me with wonder and it still gives me chills.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Advent: Incarnate

Incarnate: from the Latin, meaning "to become flesh." This is what it's all about, isn't it? It's the rubber-meets-the-road moment of Christianity. At the heart of the faith is this crazy belief that inifinite God chose to become finite man -- not that he put on a human costume to walk around in, like some sort of "Edgar suit"; not that he was a spirit everyone thought was real; and not that he was some supernaturally gifted demigod like Heracles or Perseus.

Christian orthodoxy teaches that Jesus was fully human, tripping over his own feet when he didn't watch where he was going, forgetting what he was saying in the middle of his sentence when he was tired; getting irritable when he was hungry or tired; and whacking himself on the thumb from time to time when he was working with a hammer. He probably farted at embarrassing moments too.

Often we feel we are closest to God when we are astride the crest of the wave; faith teaches us that God is closest to us when the wave has pulled us under. In our weakness, our fraility, our humiliation God identifies with us and cloaks himself in our likeness. When God became flesh-and-bone he didn't walk the halls of power as the son of an emperor, but among the huts of peasants who worked with their hands. He didn't speak the Latin of Virgil or the refined Greek of Homer, but the Aramaic of nobody and the street Greek of everybody.  He could have been anybody, because the nobodies of the world are the people whom God treasures most.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

'Silent Night'

Outside it is cold and windy, and darkness has blown over lawns, across walks and into deep drifts near buildings. The darkness is chilled by the heavy snows of an early winter, and is enough to make the weary soul ache for bed and a thick blanket. To anyone unfortunate enough to be outside by themselves, it's a lonely enough to burden the soul.

Inside the tiny church, it's a different story.

There the lights have been dimmed by choice, and the air is filled with the rustle of children like the wings of impatient angels. Above and below this susurrant murmur the organist plays an unending and nameless tune as the congregation and the minister grow silent and wait. In a moment, God will draw near and this unassuming neighborhood church will be transfigured.

It begins slowly. As the notes of the organ sort themselves into place a light the size of a single candle springs into life under the watchful eyes of the pulpit. In a moment it spreads to another candle, and then to another, and another. As the light spreads throughout the church and a hundred candles push back against the dark, the organ begins to play “Silent Night.” A holy Presence fills the room.

This is the first Christmas Eve service I can remember. It ran from 10:30 p.m. until just past midnight. I was 6 years old.

“Silent Night.” If there is a single Christmas carol that captures the wonder and the joy of Christmas, this is it. Composed in Austria in the 19th century with a simple guitar arrangement, it arrived in the world barely a month past the end of World War I. More than 17 million people had died in the war, including an estimated 7 million civilians, making it one of the deadliest conflicts in human history.

In the midst of that carnage – quite literally, since its lyricst, Father Joseph Mohr, had written the song at the height of the war two years earlier – “Silent Night” described a moment when peace as perfect and as restful as a lullaby had come to earth.

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon virgin mother and child.
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight;
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love's pure light;
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.

Silent night, holy night,
Wondrous star, lend thy light;
With the angels let us sing,
Alleluia! to the king.
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!

It's easy to crack wise about silence and the site of the Nativity. The manger Jesus was born in most likely was a cave and not the barn that serves as a staple of contemporary fancy and imagination, and silence seems unlikely for a family with a newborn in any setting, let alone one where livestock are likely to disturb them.

Nor was the peace of the era of a sort most would treasure. The Romans guaranteed order, not harmony; and kept that order by suppressing dissent. Herod the Great, king of Judea at the time Christ was born, was known for his own excess of brutality, to the point that the historian Josephus recounts an occasion where Herod had his own son strangled to death at dinner.

But the peace celebrated in “Silent Night” belongs to a higher order than the pax Romana or the stringent load set upon the vanquished by the Treaty of Versailles. In the Christmas story reported in the gospels we have the beginning of the marriage of heaven and earth, where glory is made known to the outcast, and the mighty stand still with wonder.

The peace that Christ offers is real peace: peace with one's self and peace with God, so that one may act with abandon and seek peace on earth as well.

In Christmas, as in “Silent Night,” we have a moment of respite, where something as mundane as listening to an old song played on an organ can be transformed into a holy moment where the Transcendent intrudes into the commonplace and creates an anchor point for a new life.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Advent: Belong

The loneliest song I have ever heard is "Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child." Born out of the centuries of slavery here in America, it was the soul-aching cry of children who too often had been taken from their mothers during their infancy, and of adults for a motherland that would welcome her lost children home.

Though most of us today do not have an ache that exquisitely severe, we all know the need to belong to and with others. Our popular entertainments reflect that longing with romantic comedies and with sitcoms like "Big Bang Theory" that celebrate belonging to a suited tribe of like-minded people. It is as John Donne wrote in 1624: "No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main."

When we are truly fortunate, we find that missing half of ourselves and cleave together for a lifetime of friendship or marriage. When heaven smiles, we have children or parents who understand us to all our hidden depths. And when heaven laughs with us, we find a tribe that never puts us aside: partner, friends, children, all.

This is one thing I have found true: Heaven itself is the tribe for us all. The dimwits at church and in the neighborhood around us may think themselves too good for us, but heaven never does. Quite the opposite: Heaven always pursues, always draws near, always sits at our side.


Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

'Angels We Have Heard On High'

Surveying the collection of carols in American hymnody, one might be excused for thinking that Christmas was about angels.

The Christ child gets attention in carols like “O Holy Night” or “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and the magi of Matthew's gospel take center stage in “We Three Kings,” but we just can't get enough of those angels. Whether the heavenly host sings alleluia in “Silent Night,” or angels greet the newborn Christ with sweet anthems in “What Child Is This,” it's rare to find a Christmas carol that doesn't mention them. We just can't get enough of the angels proclaiming Christ's birth to a group of frightened shepherds.

The angels take center stage in the story of the first Christmas in “Angels We Have Heard on High.” In the structure of the song we are neither shepherds receiving the announcement of Christ's birth, nor are we angels declaring the news. We are instead a third party, wandering the countryside and arriving too late to witness the stunning tableau that transpired outside Bethlehem.

Imagine and take it in for a moment, what that spectacle would have been like. The gospel of Luke mentions a group of shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem tending their flocks of sheep, one presumes in connection with the sacrificial system at the Temple in nearby Jerusalem.

On the one hand is the landscape, barren except for the scrub, meadow muffins and a small flock of sheep that dot the area. Scattered through that flock are rough-spun shepherds, some sleeping, some possibly drunk and some watching the scene with whatever emotion sits in the hearts of a shepherd late at night. On the other hand is a heavenly visitor who has just appeared, illumined and illuminating with an unworldly light that burns with a wondrous terror.

Caesar and other rulers concern themselves with halls of power and faraway kingdoms. Whenever they have an important proclamation to share, like the birth of an heir, they send messengers throughout the realm to declare it to the mighty. The angelic messenger is here to declare that God has restored the royal line of David, Israel's golden king.

Fifteen hundred years earlier, Moses went to Pharaoh and declared that God had sent him to save Israel from slavery and genocide, and to deliver his people to their own land. Now the angel is declaring that God is sending a new Moses to free Israel again, but the announcement isn't going to Caesar or even to Herod. It's going to the beneficiaries of that news, a group of social outcasts who can't even give testimony in court.

It's hard to tell which is a bigger shock to the shepherds: that the messiah has been born, or that they're the ones who are receiving the birth announcement.

This is the scene of wild, uncontainable wonder expressed in the opening lines of “Angels We Have Heard on High.” That first verse comes from the shepherds themselves, struck senseless with wonder. They have seen a host of angels and heard those angels, lost in worship, as a heavenly song rolled over the plains and came echoing back from distant mountains.

This is their witness account of what they heard and what they saw, and frankly it is incredible.

By the time we arrive on the scene, it is 2,020 years later. The angels are gone. Their music, however glorious it once sounded, has faded into silence. There is no one left living whose great-grandfather might have been stirred by that song. All that remains is what purports to be a written record of their encounter, and whatever questions we have.

The first verse is the account of the shepherds; the second verse is ours, and it is addressed to the shepherds. Why this celebration? Why this singing? What could you possibly have heard to set you to such celebration?

These are all reasonable questions, whether they are asked as the shepherds rush toward Bethlehem, or two millennia later as we wonder at the story we have heard. Either way, the shepherds' response in the third verse is the only one suitable. They don't argue theology with us. (As for how they feel about it, that should be obvious from the major key and upbeat tempo to the carol.)

Nor do the shepherds even talk about what they think the birth of Jesus will mean for them personally, for their nation, or for the world. Their initial response is simply “Come to Bethlehem and see.”

What do we find there? A baby, certainly; some would say, no more. The remainder of the third verse, and the fourth verse as well, state what the shepherds themselves believed they would find: Christ the Lord, the newborn king, Lord of heaven and earth, laid in a manger.

And woven throughout the song at the end of every verse is the song of the angels itself, rendered in a rolling chorus that rises and falls in rapid tempo, the Latin Gloria in Excelsis Deo, “Glory to God in the highest.”

This, then, is our cue, as visitors to this pageantry. We have missed the angels, and are witness only to the record of what Luke tells us the shepherds found.

Follow the shepherds. Come to Bethlehem. What do you see there?

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

You may also like:
"O Little Town of Bethlehem"
"O Holy Night: Christmas Remembered"
"Hark the Herald Angels Sing" "O Come O Come, Immanuel"

"Angels We Have Heard On High"

1. Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plain
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

2. Shepherds, why this jubilee?

Why your joyous strains prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be?
Which inspire your heavenly songs?
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
3. Come to Bethlehem and see
Christ, whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ, the Lord, the newborn King.
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

4. See Him in a manger laid,

Jesus, Lord of heaven and earth;
Mary, Joseph, lend your aid,
With us sing our Savior's birth.
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Advent: Promise

I was going to say that a lot of times promises don't have any meaning because of how easily they're broken, but then it occurred to me that I was looking at it all wrong. If promises were empty, we wouldn't care if they were broken.

It's precisely because they carry such weight and pack such value that we're cut to the very soul if someone breaks one, hesitate to make them, and won't even accept them if we know they won't be honored. A friend who breaks every promise he makes isn't much of a friend, and is soon forgotten.

I learned the value of a promise from my parents. They made a promise to each other, five years before I was born, that they have kept faithfully for nearly 52 years.

In the time since they swore to put each other first, before and beyond all others, they have never strayed from each other's side. There have been times it would have been easier for them to part ways, but they always stayed. That promise changed their lives, and it has been a legacy my brothers and I each strive to uphold in our own lives, in our own marriages.

There was a second promise that my parents made, that I also have made on three separate occasions in my life. That's the promise of a parent, forged in the heart for nine months and declared with the first look and the first touch of a new baby.

It's much like the promise I made to my wife: I am here for you. I am not going anywhere. If there is anything you need, I will move heaven and earth to get it for you. Your happiness and your well-being come before my own.

Promises change lives. A promise by the right person can change the world.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Advent: Restore

This is an abandoned house, one of at least three that I pass every day as I walk the dog. There used to be people who lived here, up until some time shortly after the Great Recession.

In its years of dispossession, the siding has come off the home in some places, the windows and doors on the first floor have all been boarded up, and trash has filled the side and back yards.

Given that I live in an urban area, the house probably isn't vacant. Homeless people have been known to move into empty houses, which also are frequently visited by drug dealers and their customers, and by teens looking for the easy thrill of exploring abandoned places. Opportunistic thieves probably removed anything of value years ago, including copper electric wiring and even the plumbing.

Many people who see this house probably see an eyesore and wish the city would tear it down. I see an opportunity for a nonprofit organization to rebuild the neighborhood. Imagine buying properties and restoring what time and vandals have removed. New wiring, new floors, new plumbing, new insulation, new siding, and then new residents who buy the property for nothing more than the cost of the restoration and a promise to live there for the next 25 years.

Restoring this house would take work, time and money. Probably the inside would have to be gutted. But what a thing that would be, to see a desolate property like this once more provide shelter and a home for a family with children who would play in the back yard and enliven the neighborhood.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Advent: Sign

Over the years, departments of Transportation have seen the benefit in adopting universal symbols for street signs. That way, even if you don't know the local language, you'll still recognize the yellow triangle that means yield, the red octagon that means stop, and the wavy lines under the car mean that you soon will drive on bacon.

Signs can be extremely helpful to read, but of course not all signs are as obvious as road signs. Fatigue, fever and general aches are all signs of flu, dengue fever, West Nile virus and bubonic plague. A sore jaw may be a sign of a toothache, tension, or a heart attack. A red dawn could be a sign of rain, or it could be a sign that it's just going to be a nice day.

To understand a sign properly, you've to understand it in the larger context of all the other signs. If that fever is accompanied by mosquito bites and you live in the tropics, dengue fever is more likely than it is in New England. If you also feel like you've been beaten with a baseball bat and you're afraid you won't die, the diagnosis is even easier to make.

Right now I think we're all reading the signs anxiously. A Russian ambassador was just assassinated; an apparent terror attack in Germany left 12 dead and many others injured. Trump, elected on the strengths of our fears, says and does things that have milions of us eyeing the next four years nervously.

Know the times by the signs, they say. That's also a good way to know your neighbors by the signs they give. What do the signs say to you?

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Advent: Ponder

Sometimes it's good to step outside and take a fresh look at the house. There's so much we know and so much we think we know, that a fresh look from outside can help us to rethink what we've always taken for granted.

There's obvious stuff we can see, like the seams where an addition was built 60 years; or the stains left by algae, weather and city air over the past 20 years. Other times there are personal stories the house recalls, like the Left Behind cookout in the back yard one spring after the latest prediction of the Return of Christ went the same way that all the other predictions had; or that gray October morning in 2002 when I watched a social worker drive off with my foster son and my heart flooded with grief.

Other possibilities eventually suggest themselves, especially once you ponder the inside of the house. Can we change the layout of the first floor? Is another addition possible? Is there a better way to stpre everything? What others can the house provide sanctuary for when the need arises? Walls shift, doors open that I never knew existed, and unfamiliar corridors beckon me to a lifetime of discovery.

Truth is contemplative, so I explore it a composition notebook, or on the pages of Libre Office. Truth is interrelational, so I discover it in the twists and turns of conversation with good friends. When we were children, truth was revealed in what we read, or by a trusted source, like a father who told us that people reproduce by budding like yeast. When we become adults, we put childish ways behind us, and we begin to ponder things anew and reconsider everything we've been told.

The search for understanding can be unnverving, but it begins by taking a step outside and looking at the house from outside. And it never stops.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Advent: Peace

The whole idea behind this Advent series is a daily meditation on themes culminating in the celebration of Christmas in a few short days. Every day, take a photo around the day's theme, and share your thoughts. Today's theme is "peace." Pray tell, what does peace look like?

Does peace look like the ruins of Aleppo, where Russian and Syrian forces have been slaughtering civilians who until recent days were kept in chains for long and brutal months by ISIS? Well, that's a warzone, admittedly; maybe it's more like life here in the United States, where about 27 people are sacrificed every day to our firearms fetish.

Maybe it looks like Flint, Mich., where they still have poisoned water pipes; or like Washington, D.C, where the wealthy and powerful are about to get a solid lock on wealth and power for at least the next four years, and leave a mark that will linger for decades.

Cynically viewed, peace is an illusion in this world. It's a temporary pause in fighting because one group has enough power to intimidate all others, and some of those so intimidated change their positions in order to enjoy the prestige and security they're accustomed to.

Less cynically I would have to agree that peace is not an illusion but an aspiration that God has for us, one where the supernatural world bursts forth into the natural world and orders thing as they are intended. In those moments of when heaven arrives, and as its scent lingers afterward, we find impossible things happen. Soldiers leave the trenches, exchange gifts, and play soccer together in No Man's Land; the Christian greets the Muslim like an old friend, with a heartfelt "Salaam!" and the Palestinian invites the Israeli to tea.

These intrusions of heaven are small as a newborn child; and so we must be wary. The powerful always see such outbreaks as a threat, and want to kill the baby in the crib.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Advent: Mercy

Mercy is the snow that blankets the city erases its grit, and fills the air with the crisp smell of the countryside so that the city can forget for a few hours that it is a city. Mercy is a hot shower that wipes away the grime of the day and leaves you clean and refreshed.

A longstanding pet peeve of mine is when people complain that someone is getting mercy who doesn't deserve it. It's even worse when they complain that they themselves deserve it more than the other person.

No, you fatuous nincompoop, I want to say, mostly because "fatuous nincompoop" sounds so epic, that's the point of mercy. No one deserves it. If we deserved mercy, it would be our just desserts. If mercy were something we could buy, it would be a tawdry bauble. If someone owed us mercy because we were good people or had earned it, it would be worthless. Like its close cousin grace, which puts crackheads in a place of honor, mercy is a marvel because we don't deserve it and have no right to claim it. Mercy says more about the person who grants it (or won't) than it does about the one who receives it.

For all that, I have to agree with this: Mercy is frustrating, precisely because it is uneven in its application. Some people's debts are forgiven, and others have to pay them off. Some are pardoned in the nick of time, some too late, and some never at all.

To that, I have no answer.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Advent: Gladness

Gladness is one of the times that it really is the destination and not the journey. Gladness it what we feel after a long wait, after a hard slog, and after good effort.

It's like fermentation. I really don't care about the lactobacillus-and-yeast culture, except as a means. I'll wait it out, because the wait is worth it, but what I'm after is the alcohol, whether it's in the wine, the beer or the bread.

There are other things to do while the yeast performs its holy work, to feed the culture, to build the right flavor, and to prepare the right storage for the final stretch, but once all the work is done, and the waiting has finished, then the party can begin.

And we can be glad.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

O Come O Come Immanuel

This Sunday is the fourth Sunday of Advent, something I suspect has escaped the notice of many Christians in America.

What we popularly consider the Christmas season technically is the Advent season. Advent is a part of the traditional Christian calendar, beginning four Sundays before Christmas, and ending on Christmas itself. The four Sundays of Advent are marked by lighting candles on a wreath, each with a different theme. The fifth candle, the Christ candle, is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas. In a liturgical sense the Christmas season does not begin until Christmas itself, and lasts for 12 days before ending on Epiphany, or Twelfth Night.

Fortunately, this doesn't make a difference to any but the stodgiest and most annoying people. Luckily for the rest of us, they have their own churches where they can fret over these things and wait until Christmas before they start singing Christmas carols, without ruining the fun of the season for the rest of us. (You know who you are.)

Advent technically has its own set of carols, such as “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” written by Charles Wesley; but for whatever reason these have not received the elevated status of Christmas carols. With some exceptions.

Chief among these exceptions is “O Come O Come Emmanuel.”

Like all other great songs, whether they are hymns, Christmas carols or something else, “O Come O Come Immanuel” is best learned not from a lyrics sheet but by immersion. You grow up hearing it sung as the last leaves fall from the trees and as the sky first grows leaden with winter. You first sing it yourself before you can read, and learn to lose yourself in its somber notes at an age when it still thrills you to watch your breath chill in the air around you.

Some Christmas carols contain lessons on the meaning of Christmas, or they retell a familiar story around the Nativity. Some try to do both. None of that applies in this case. There is no progression of ideas in this carol, no breakthrough or “aha” that it tries to impart. Each verse begins the same way as its fellows, and each verse ends the same way: God, come rescue us. We are suffering here for want of you.

“O Come O Come Immanuel” was not written as much as it was grown — not from among the mountains, fields and forest rivers, nor from the bustle and jostle of our cities. It springs instead from the eternal longing in the human heart to transcend this sullied flesh and to connect with God. It is the prayer of a soul chained to the earth while it longs to dance in fields of glory.

“O Come O Come Immanuel” is not merely a hymn. It is Advent itself, given words and stretched over a frame of music that glides by as regularly as the chimes that call monks to prayer. It is a song that exudes the universal yearning for relief from the tedium of mortality. We are exiled here, we are under sentence of death, we are oppressed, we are weary. Come save us.

And always, in the same cadence that it gives voice to our longing, the carol returns to that same patient reminder: “Rejoice! Rejoice. Immanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”

So we wait. Thousands of years ago God's people waited in faith for the coming of the promised deliverer, whose arrival we now celebrate from the vantage of a faith rewarded. We also wait for his promised return and the fulfillment of the deliverance that he began when he first arrived. And lastly we wait for him to come more fully into our hearts and change us.

You came into the darkness and you made a difference, Anglicans pray at this time of year. Come into the darkness again.

Even so. Come, Lord Jesus. We are waiting. Amen.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

You may also like:
"O Little Town of Bethlehem"
"O Holy Night: Christmas Remembered"
"Hark the Herald Angels Sing"

O Come O Come Immanuel

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

2. O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free

Thine own from Satan's tyranny ;
From depths of hell thy people save,
And give them victory o'er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

3. O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer,

Us mortals by thine advent here.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
4. O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heav'nly home ;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

5. O come, Adonai, Lord of might,

Who to thy tribes, on Sinai's height,
In ancient times did give the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Advent: Lifted

It's not obvious from the picture, but I took it a moment ago at Panera Bread on Route 1, where my close, personal friend Tim Nussbaumer and I have spent many an hour laughing together, trying to shock or outrage one another, discussing the news, talking shop about church, and even analyzing passages of Scripture. (Seriously, it gets into heady stuff, from the authorial intent of a 3,000-year-old Middle Eastern shepherd to the theology of race behind the books of Galatians and Hebrews, with the occasional foray into textual criticism, source material, comparative religion and even "Blue's Clues.")

Why this for "lifted?" Because these discussions are among the highest points of my week. I look forward to them like my daughter does to a birthday party. If you can't have such eclectic discussions with a friend over a cup of coffee, you might as well not get out of bed that week.

Also: I am writing again. After years of struggling to write anything worth reading, and feeling my value as a human being shrivel up with it, gras a Die, at last writing is starting to become once more the joy that I have always known it to be.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Advent: Strong

I've been thinking on this one all day, often with a dose of irony. The Mercer Oak, more than 300 years old, seemed indestructible until the day it fell apart. Orual always thought Bardia was so strong but never saw the price he paid every day to be the soldier his queen required. Our nation is a superpower, and yet many analysts are wondering at the dynamics that threaten to tear us apart.

By contrast, this oak seedling is no more than 9 inches tall. It appeared in my flower bed four years ago, the spring after a squirrel (one presumes) buried an acorn there. I cut the seedling off at the base with my shears two years ago, and yet here it is, regrown and ready for another winter. There's a determined little dryad driving this one.

With time and in such a place, this tree can break rocks, heave concrete and knock holes in the foundations of houses. Left to its own devices it can cause all sorts of carnage amid the neat structures overlaying the world around it. Turned loose it can provide food for animals, shelter for the birds of the air, and even shade and a place to rest for a wounded general to direct his troops during the battle.

That is strength.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Advent: Tell

If the mail carrier ever decides to come through the door and rob us blind, I am confident that our dog, Loki, will raise the alarm and tell us. The same is true if the little yipyip dog across the street ever makes good on its threats to pick the lock on our front door and kill the entire family while we eat. Loki keeps us abreast of the dangers that walk our street, and tells us whenever there is cause for alarm.That's just the kind of dog he is.

As a writer I prefer to show rather than to tell. It's much more compelling storytelling if the reader can run her hands along the rough walls of the oubliette, watch the narrow shaft of light as it scores its way across the stony floor, and feel the encroaching darkness poisoning her own soul, than it is to say "So-and-so was depressed."

But sometimes telling is what is needed. The matter is so urgent, so important, so dreadful or so exciting (or both) that it needs to be shared immediately, and there is no time to feel the weight or measure the strength of each word. The drowning need to be rescued, the birth must be announced, the proclamation of freedom must be shouted from the rooftops.

Show if time allows, but never be afraid to tell when you must. Tell it loud and clear, and leave no room for doubt.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Advent: Patient

Waiting is inescapable. What control we have is limited to how we wait, patiently or im-. Mostly we want things now, or at least soon; but there's a kind of grace that descends on us at times that allows us to wait with utter serenity and patience for what we want.

It's not because of how much we want it. I'm sure everyone who ever has been, knows or is a child can recount the impatient minutes waiting in line for a rollercoaster, the exasperating days before the end of school; or for that matter, the impatient tedium of waiting for something to be over and done with so we could leave.

Maybe it's the inevitability that makes patience easier. I remember the excitement building for the day I married Beloved Wife; and those heady minutes that grew in intensity until time itself was ablaze with glory as we waited for each of our children to arrive. There was no impatience there, just an excitement and a sense of wonder as the moment drew near.

Set your eyes on the Inevitable. Rejoice in the signs of its approach. Let the wonder build. Even now it is here, in our midst.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Advent: Joy

Joy is the star that guides the lonely ship upon the sea. It is the hand that holds ours in the whispering darkness, the sure path we walk in the treacherous valley, and that voice that says quietly, "I am here" when all other tongues grow still.

Joy is the spring that bubbles in the desert, the arms that carry us when we're too weary to walk, and the song that revives our flagging spirit.

Joy is the bright sun that wakes us in the morning, and the warm bed that bids us take our rest at day's end.

When all that we have and all that we are is stripped away, joy is what remains.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Advent: Repent

Repent is one of the big, dramatic words in Christianity; and fortunately is always aimed at other people. It's not that we don't do wrong things ourselves, it's just that there are perfectly good reasons for the things we do that serve as mitigating factors. It's always Those People who are guilty of aiding, abeting or committing truly terrible injustices or systemic wrongs; engaging in immoral or destructive behavior; trafficking in lies; and so on. We're not perfect, but we're better than that, and they need to get over their attitude in criticizing us.


"Repentance" means turning around, and changing course. That's a difficult thing to do when our forward momentum is as great as it often is; because the things that we most need to repent of are so deeply embedded in our culture that we often don't grasp how complicit we are in what our society does. A man may repent of taking his wife for granted for the sake of watching football but never realize his deeper indifference to women's dignity because it is so entrenched in his culture; or he may repent of personal acts of bigory but never grasp how unequally society continues to treat African Americans 150 years after emancipation -- and may bristle at suggestions that things are as bad as all that. And so the ship barrels steadily toward the rocks and toward ruin because the sin remains unrepented of.

Repentance comes with difficulty for an individual, and is virtually impossible for a society -- one of the reasons Justice walks among us, arguing for those who have been wronged and urging us to listen, so that the twins Redemption and Renewal can be born.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Advent: Endure

"Endure" seems like such an onerous word. It's like an extra weight in your backpack that you have to carry or a steep hill that you have to race up. "Persevere" sounds so much better. So does "triumph," or "overcome."

"Endure" it is. It's not the end result, but it is the effort that makes that result possible. We may beat depression, recover from an illness, break free of loneliness, and even bounce back from personal and professional setbacks, but first we have to endure them. Even when it's over, you know it's not — not really. Grendel always returns to Heorot, or his mother does. They may be around the next corner, or coming up from behind, but sooner or later we see them, and we must endure them once again. And we may never see some monsters, like poverty or oppression, vanquished in our lifetimes.

It's easier to endure when there's an end in sight; and easier by far when someone has your back. Getting a phone call from a friend with a listening ear, receiving an invite to share a cup of coffee, or sometimes just someone recognizing that you're broken and staying with you a while, can make all the difference between endurance and giving up.

The Christian faith not only asserts that God runs at our side and fights the monsters with us, it also exhorts us to be there for others when they're on their own. Run with them. Protect their flanks. There's no load so heavy that it can't be lightened when others help to carry it.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

'Hark the Herald Angels Sing'

If you want a quietly solemn way to end the midnight service, sing “Silent Night.” If you want a song that will transport the congregation to heavenly realms, go with “O Holy Night.” But if you want to get people out of their seats, charged up and ready to move, the Christmas carol you want is “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”

The secret is in that tune. Written with an upbeat tempo and in a major key, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is the Christmas carol for a celebration. It's a versatile song, one that can sound heavenly when it's sung acapella or accompanied by a violin; but if you listen to the music, it's just as easy to imagine it played on trumpets like a quartet of heralds announcing a royal arrival. It's virtually impossible to get this song wrong. It can even be played on an organ and still come out inspiring.

We owe “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” to the prolific creativity of Charles Wesley, the credited author of more than 6,000 hymns. Wesley — who, like his brother John and their father, was an ordained minister of the Church of England — is also remembered as the founder of Methodism. The denomination takes its name from a prayer group the Charles Wesley founded while he was attending Christ Church, Oxford, that was known for its intensive, methodological approach to studying the Bible.

Wesley considered hymns, made easier to remember by virtue of being sung, a natural way to teach. He brought his meticulous approach to Bible study to bear so that the lyrics became not just recountings of stories in the Bible or passages of Scripture set to music, but miniature lessons in church doctrine. It would be as though contemporary theologian N.T. Wright put portions of “Surprised by Hope” to music, and then received airtime comparable to popular Christian singers like Chris Tomlin.

Originally published in 1739, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" underwent some minor changes under the revival preacher George Whitefield, who changed the opening lines of the first verse (from “Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings”) and added the familiar couplet that closes each verse. The song originally had the same tune as "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today," but in 1855 musician William H. Cummings adapted Mendelssohn's song to fit the lyrics. For all that, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is no exception to the depth of Wesley's writing.

The carol begins by placing the singers in the position of the shepherds of Luke's gospel as the angels appear and announce the birth of Jesus. To modern sensibilities, this a nice place to be. The shepherds are a quaint pastoral touch, and most of us are happy to identify with them in the gospel narrative as the first to hear that Christ has come.

We lose sight of how radical and subversive Luke's gospel is on this point, because the truth is that the shepherds embody the sort of people we usually go out of our way to avoid. People in the first century were discouraged from buying anything directly from shepherds because it was a given that anything a shepherd tried to sell was probably stolen. Even their testimony was inadmissible in the courts. This wasn't a quaint or pastoral group of people; it was an assemblage of crack addicts from under the bridge who aren't allowed to vote.

It's among this group of felons and illiterates that Wesley's hymn places us, as they receive the unexpected announcement from the angels, along with the news that the new king has removed any barriers that may have kept the from God:
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”
That's standard Bible stuff. In the second verse Wesley starts to teach about the Incarnation.

In Bible studies I've attended or led, I've encountered some pretty surprising attitudes toward Jesus. It seems we like Jesus to be something unreal or unnatural. We see the miracles in the gospels and assume that he had special God powers, and that this is why people followed him; or we catch the doctrine of his sinless nature and assume that life was easy for him, free of temptation, doubt or fear.

This is an old error. Christian orthodoxy teaches that Jesus was not a demigod like Herakles or some other hero of Greco-Roman myth, but as fully human as he was fully God. The Bible makes a point of it. He gets hungry. He gets angry. He gets tired. He cries, and even has full-blown panic attacks. He even cooks food and folds the laundry. Wesley addresses that point of doctrine in Verse 2.
Christ, by highest heav’n adored.
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate deity,
Pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”
The proclamation of the angels and the mystery of Christ revealed, Wesley in the third verse turns to the shepherds' response, which is to worship. But here Wesley sneaks in a reference to Easter, as he proclaims that Christ is come to see the end of death:
Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Ris’n with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”
There are two other verses Charles Wesley wrote for the carol that George Whitefield cut. To this day, they are rarely sung. But reading these, you can see firsthand the attention that Charles Wesley gave to Scripture as he wrote:

Come, desire of nations, come,
Fix in us thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display thy saving pow’r,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to thine.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!” 
Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.
Let us thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the life, the inner man:
Oh, to all thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

I hope your church incorporates this Christmas carol into worship at least once this Advent; and if it doesn't, I hope you can find time to enjoy it yourself, around the table with your family, or out caroling with your friends.

“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is one of the greatest Christmas carols ever written. It's scarcely possible to imagine Christmas without this song.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

You may also like:
"O Little Town of Bethlehem"
"O Holy Night: Christmas Remembered"
"Rudolph the Red-Nose Savior"

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Advent: Justice

When I was a child, justice came every Saturday morning, guaranteed by giants like Batman, Superman and Green Lantern. The Legion of Doom would attempt its evil, and for a moment it would have its day in the sun, but the Superfriends would stop them. The heroes always won. That was justice.

I'm older now, and I realize that evil doesn't usually come with names like Lex Luthor or Grodd. It usually doesn't carry a badge or hold office. Most often it's unremarkable and when it doesn't sound pleasant like "Work hard and you'll succeed!" (meaning: if you don't succeed, it's because you didn't try hard enough), it's so subtle that we don't even realize it's there, like a shadow. (Just look how hard it is to grasp the significance that all our big superheroes are white, and how many are independently wealthy, geniuses, or both, rather than working-class stiffs or people of color.)

Justice is so much harder to attain when we can't even agree what the injustice is, much less how to correct it. Sometimes justice seems like a tree at the start of the winter, barren and lifeless.

Humanity once groaned beneath the weight of the world, and they cried and reached out to God for relief. To their surprise, Justice took their hand and stood among them. The day that happened, the world began to begin anew.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Advent: Together

If you want to make pumpkin pie, you need more than just a pumpkin. You'll needs eggs, milk, and sugar and other sweeteners, just to make the filling. You'll also need a crust (flour, water and butter), a pie pan, a hot oven, and about 40-45 minutes. On their own, none of these foods is as good to eat as they are in aggregate. (Still true for most of them, even if you don't like pumpkin pie.)

It may be Pollyanna-ish to say this, but it is the season of hope after all: working together we can do amazing things.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Advent: Equity

Equity is something I think we all strive for in this crazy messed-up world. We're rightly appalled when people are systematically denied their rights, whether it be the right to safe water and the protection of sacred lands, or the right to life and liberty. Even worse when the law takes the side of the mighty and torments demonstrators, or cannot convict a cop caught on video shooting someone in the back and planting evidence.

The time is out of joint, O cursed spite!

In Advent I see the coming of one born to set it right, and I see his presence and agency in the people who work to see that equity established under the law and throughout society.

Grace be to you all.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Advent: Inquire

If asking is polite and to question is to challenge something, then inquiring means you're in for the long haul. No pat answers will suffice, and no brushoffs will work. Anyone can answer a question. Real wisdom is shown in the questions that we ask.

It takes time and patience, both to frame the question properly and to understand the answer in all its nuance -- not just for how it settles the old inquiry, but for the new lines of inquiry that it will launch upon the seas of wonder.

Knowledge and understanding are not something we gain; they are journeys we take, oceans we will sail all our lives and hopefully long afterward. The odyssey changes us in ways we can never appreciate at the time, but it's always worth it.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Advent: Love

Love is a mystery to me. It is longer-lasting and more durable than desire, and yet desire can overthrow it. It can be fiercely loyal between friends, and full of quarreling between sisters. It is as gentle as a father as he holds his child. and yet again it is terrible to behold in all its glory if someone ever dares to threaten that child.

Love can be reckless and throw caution to the wind, and it can be a lifeline. Love looks at our deepest shames and our blackest secrets without a word of reproach, without flinching and without judging. When morality makes us ashamed and pushes us away because we don't measure up, love draws closer and makes our shame its own.

Love never gives us the matches to burn the world down, but when we do, love will still be standing amid the ashes. On that day, all it will say is, "I'm here, and I love you," and hold us as we cry.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

'O Little Town of Bethlehem'

Christmas is coming, and if you want a deeper worship experience in church, that's good news. In addition to the latest worshiptainment song from the radio, chances are good that you're going to hear actual Christmas carols. And by “hear,” I actually mean “sing.”

Traditional Christmas carols have several advantages going for them that popular and trendy worship songs don't. For starters, because American society is largely influenced by Christianity, people usually are familiar with Christmas carols even if they grew up outside the church. They probably recognize with the tunes, and if they have the lyrics in front of them, they almost certainly can sing along with confidence from the start.

Secondly, unlike many contemporary songs which deal strictly with a reductionist gospel of loving God and receiving forgiveness of sins, most Christmas carols are heavy lifters when it comes to doctrine. They'll carry their own weight in every verse, if not on every line.

Carols like “The First Noël” retell the story of the first Christmas around the supporting cast of shepherds and magi, while “O Come All Ye Faithful” teaches good doctrine on the hypostatic union. “We Three Kings” explores the coming life of Christ down to his death and Resurrection, and “O Holy Night” reflects the gospel call for social justice.

And then there's “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” a four-verse meditation on the Nativity itself.

Written in 1868 by Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal priest from the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia who had visited the Holy Land three years earlier, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is a song people know of but don't know. Without the lyrics in front of them, most people can sing the first line with great enthusiasm before trailing off into “Da dee da dee dee dum” on Line 2.

If you sang “O Little Town” in church as a child, you probably sang it accompanied by a battered and tuneless organ. When you finished singing, you may even have looked at the carol itself with a measure of pity for all the trauma it had just suffered. Many songs suffer horribly during congregational worship in church, especially when they're sung without enthusiasm and played on an organ.

If your church still uses hymnals you're more likely to find “O Little Town of Bethlehem” than a carol like “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” but there are no guarantees you'll sing it during Advent, on Christmas or during the days leading to Epiphany. It's more of a bench-warmer than a Christmas titan like “Silent Night.”

That's a shame, because this song has what it takes to be a winner. The melody fits comfortably within a one-octave range, and proceeds at a steady, easily managed pace. The carol is lyrically unassuming as well, starting out like the opening montage of a Hollywood movie before delving into its deeper themes.

The first verse of “O Little Town” begins with the camera tracking slowly across a field of stars against the cold night sky before it drops down toward Bethlehem. It's a small town, scarcely more than a village. Many of the houses are hovels, owned by working-class families, although a few are bigger. Winding through the village are roads made of dirt and frozen mud, beaten paths made by the steady footsteps of people and their livestock over the years.

It's night, so as the camera pans through town we see the darkened windows of the houses. The only light comes from the stars and moon above, except for one mysterous source. As our field of vision steadily shifts leftward we perceive an unearthly light, small but steady, coming from the edge of town.

The second verse takes us to a closeup of the manger. Mary is lying on a pile of straw. Her face and her entire body are streaked with dust and dirt, and she is leaden with exhaustion. It's more than 100 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and if it weren't for that Roman census, she and her husband wouldn't have made the trip. It's too much to manage when you're nine months pregnant, but it did have one benefit. All that travel made labor a lot faster than it would have been otherwise.

The scene in the manger is perfectly idyllic, the proverbial calm after the storm. A moment ago Jesus was screaming fit to raise the dead, but he has finally settled down. Right now he's nestled in the crook of Mary's arm, latched onto her breast and lazily drinking colostrum as his eyes close and his tiny body unclenches.

In a moment Jesus will fall asleep and then Mary will too, but that won't last long. He's going to wake up a lot the next few nights, and aggravate his parents to no end. That's how it works when you have an infant.

Now the camera pulls back from the manger scene, and pans up toward the heavens again. It's quiet in town. Aside from Joseph, who is trying to decide if he puts too much stock in his dreams, pretty much everyone in Bethlehem is asleep right now.

That’s a shame because the people in the town are missing quite a show. The gates of heaven are open wide, and the angelic host is looking in amazement at the scene below them. While the stars themselves announce the birth of Jesus to anyone who is watching, the angels are lost in worship to the God who is at once too vast to comprehend and yet so tiny and vulnerable that it beggars description.

As rare as it is that we sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” it's rarer still we sing the third and fourth verses. That's our loss. The third verse contemplates the unassuming gospel, which by its nature comes silently and without fanfare or acclaim to the meek; rather than with the might and bluster we ourselves often rely on to advance it.

The fourth verse moves to entreaty, asking for our own transformation. Two things I find compelling about this verse: Rather than focusing on the crucified Christ we focus on so much, it welcomes the infant Christ into our lives, and it does so with the title Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Why is this important? I can't speak for others, but too often I take the adult Man of Sorrows for granted. I pause, consider his death for my sins, breathe a quick prayer of contrition and ask for forgiveness, and then I move on, my life largely unchanged. You can't do that with a child.

I became a father 17 years ago. I can think of nothing that upended my life more than the arrival of my daughter on that October afternoon. My wife and I had altered our lives to accommodate one another, but either one of us could and often did manage just fine without the other around when it came to day-to-day living.

I went to work in the morning and came home in the evening, just as I had done before we got married. My wife did the same with her studies and teaching post at graduate school. The big change in our lifestyle after our wedding was that now, when we returned to the apartment for the evening, somebody else would be there. That was it.

Not so when Oldest Daughter arrived on the scene. She required our presence in her life constantly for food, for comfort, for cleaning and for education. If she was hungry, we had to drop everything and feed her. If she was upset, we did our best to comfort her immediately. As soon as she started babbling, we started babbling back to encourage her to speak. Even a trip to the supermarket or to a friend's house was altered fundamentally by her presence. She didn't run the house, but her well-being became our highest priority, even above our own. If she couldn't sleep because of an ear infection, we didn't either.

It's been 17 years now and Oldest Daughter has learned remarkably well to stand on her own two feet. She gets herself food, works her own job, and pursues her own learning at high school and at home. For all that, our lives remain ordered around her needs, her goals and her for her own sake, because we love her. The same is true for her sisters.

In that sacrificial and occasionally selfless devotion to her life and well-being, I see a shadow of the life-upending transformation that Christ can bring when the unassuming infant from the manger arrives in our midst and compels us to place someone else truly first.

That's not just singing a song. That's worship.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

You may also like:
"'O Holy Night: Christmas Remembered"
"Rudolph the Red-Nose Savior"

The lyrics:

O Little Town of Bethlehem

1. O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

2. For Christ is born of Mary,
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth!
And praises sing to God the King
And peace to men on earth.
3. How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

4. O holy child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in;
Be born to us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell.
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel.