ALONG THE PATH
By Robert M. Chapman, II
Beloved members and friends, there will not be any singing of Christmas carols in our sanctuary this year. There will not be any greens hanging, nor the lighting of Advent candles. There will not be a Christmas cantata with flutes, clarinets or percussion instruments. There will not even be a visit or concert from our good friend pianist Thomas Pandolfi. There will not be any of Mrs. Haynes' Moravian cookies either. Most unfortunately, no sugar or ginger crisps, lemon or chocolate chips. Since last summer, my great hope and heartfelt desire has been of our singing "Silent Night" together, lighting our candles like we do every Christmas Eve. That is not going to happen either. This year, it is not the Grinch who will steal Christmas; rather it is the COVID-19 pandemic. Its rage across our country has even cancelled Santa's welcoming little children at Macy's department store in New York city.
If there were any gift I would like this Christmas, it would be the gift of our church being able to sustain ourselves through a longer than predicted absence from each other. I welcome the gift of people keeping faith, wanting to remain part of our community, without being tempted to worship and eventually join elsewhere. It would be the gift of God keeping us together as the body of Christ at Chestnut. The gift would include our being able to financially sustain ourselves so that when our doors do finally open, we would be able to run up and down the aisles singing the chorus of Eliza Hewitt's hymn proclaiming eternal life: "When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be! When we all see Jesus, we'll sing and shout the victory." In all sincerity, aside from wishing everyone safe keeping and good health, my wish and prayer for this Christmas and as we enter 2021, would be our being in the same one great accord and fellowship as before this pandemic struck. I wish that all the past year were like the scenario of a bad dream, whereby when we awoke, nothing had really changed. However, the pandemic has turned out to be a nightmare, and no doubt all of us will have changed in some way upon our return.
Many families will be making difficult choices this year on how they will share Christmas. Some will be creating their own "pod," travelling and huddling around each other with masks and sanitizing gel. Depending on other circumstances and options, some folks will be bold or obstinate, shrugging off precautions, taking a chance without being mindful of great risk and consequences. And, some individuals will hunker down, choosing to stay home alone, in quarantine if you will. Regardless, depending on your circumstances and perspectives, Christmas will certainly be different this year, which gives me pause to remember and share a memory or two from last year.
Last year Christmas day was one to embrace and cherish. The weather was pleasant and for a change, we had a house full of company. Two of Elaine's brothers were here, a sleigh full of her nieces, nephews and a new baby. My sister and Gordon were here. Two of my cousins came too, and without knowing it at the time, it was to be the last Christmas I would share with my mom. An assembly of our kin gathered between Elaine's family and mine, some folks being introduced to each other for the first time. In the back yard, like two experienced chefs, my cousin and I worked together, immersing our hands into 1812 House Autry seafood mix, sprinkled with an additional dose and seasoning of salt and plenty of pepper. Together we fried a few crabs and oysters, crisp and crunchy! For some reason, it was one of the best moments I have ever shared with him, one I will never forget, like the time when our family welcomed him home at the old Patrick Henry Airport terminal when he returned from Vietnam. I believe he still remembers the welcome home sign I had made for him as he fell into his mama's arms.
Additionally, Elaine who cooks and moves in the kitchen with such grace and ease, provided a wonderful meal complete with all the stuffing, gravy and of course, mashed potatoes. It was a Christmas of no drama, whereby the only gift we shared was one of thanksgiving and joy sprinkled throughout our collective hearts and memories. The house was too full for us to sit down at one table together. We were filled with pleasantries of wonderful seasonal cheer, while sharing stories of "remember when" or "I think you were there." All of us were feeling well, glad to be alive and grateful. Looking back on it, Elaine will sometimes ask me: "Wasn't that a wonderful Christmas last year, didn't we all have a good time together?" Also on that day, to the amazement of my brother-in-law, joining us from across the parking lot, nestled up high in a tree were two of the Chestnut bald eagles, looking down on our celebration. By the way I have nicknamed them Mary and Joseph. Needless to say, our celebration this year will pale by comparison. However, good memories sustain our spirit, giving us pause to dwell on and appreciate what we hope will soon come to be.
No doubt, the wonder and joy of last year's Christmas Day was framed for me by what had occurred on the evening before in our sanctuary at Chestnut. At our early family service, I remember how the children shared the narrative of the ancient and sacred story of Jesus' birth. They came before us dressed as animals and shepherds, accompanied by wise men, angels, and a star, creating in their own unique way the traditional narrative of Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem. I am sure there are many families who can bring up the occasion of that evening from last year as recorded on their cell phones. Then at 11 p.m., we shared the liturgy of lessons and carols. We read the stories contained within the scriptures of Old Testament prophecies, interspersed with Christmas carols. We received the sacrament and concluded our service with the lighting of our candles while singing Franz Gruber's "Silent Night." And lest we forget, the Chestnut Chimes rang us into the first hours of Christmas with "Ding Dong Merrily on High," complete with their red and white Santa hats.
All of us have our stories and rituals surrounding Christmas. For the last couple of years, I have always tried to capture the appearance of Clarence the angel in Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life," starring Jimmy Stewart. And when I come home from church on the evening of Christmas Eve, there finally is hardly any traffic on Harpersville Road. I conclude the early morning hour of Christmas with a cold mug of eggnog, watching the broadcast of the Christmas Eve mass led by Pope Francis from St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. It makes for a long evening; yet it forms and puts into motion my celebration of Christmas Day, even with a yawn or two.
With the earth being severely wounded from the rage of this pandemic, in addition to the cold weather bearing down upon us, coupled with the flu season, I am reminded of the sobering words from the 1872 hymn "In the Bleak Midwinter" Christina G. Rossetti writes: "In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone." If there were ever a Christmas in recent history whereby we could benefit from the story surrounding the innocence of the Christ child, this is the year. Here is the story of how a young couple persevered against all the odds makers. According to Matthew, they were experiencing difficulty in their relationship. We are told about Joseph "being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly" (Matthew 1: 19). Matthew notes how within himself he actually resolved to go his own way, until he experienced this weird and divine dream, when God spoke through an angel giving him a new calling to move forward in faith. The Holy Spirit was in the process of a new creation, making something unbelievable happen through both of them for the sake of the world. The power of the dream and the visit of the angelic messenger proved to be a pivotal moment in the birth narrative. Note how in the story, Joseph had a change of heart, because when he woke from his sleep "he did as the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife" (Matthew 1: 24).
Sharing a different approach, with Mary visiting Elizabeth, Zachariah's prophecy along with a decree to all the world from a powerful empire complimented by Emperor Augustus issuing a decree of registration, Luke seeks to bring a spirit of calm to his narrative. His version of Jesus' birth is filled with an assortment of shepherds and angels, creating an atmosphere of peace, love, warmth and endearment. This is the scene and memory we hold dear when singing "Silent Night." Luke's portrait of Jesus' birth is a beautiful scene. After giving birth to him, his mother Mary "wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn" (Luke 2: 7). Even in a moment when the shepherds are terrified, there is an angel who brings a good word of comfort: "Do not be afraid; for see - I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord" (Luke 2: 10b-11).
This year after we entered the season of Lent, we went without having our Ash Wednesday service or any of our Holy Week services on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, or Easter morning. And now, here we are again at Christmas, another festive season, facing the same dilemma with each passing day. Cases of the virus continue escalating and more deaths are occurring. As in the different versions of the ancient text surrounding the birth of Jesus, depending on the account you prefer, Matthew or Luke, history will reveal how we survived the COVID-19 pandemic within our families and at Chestnut. May we forget how the Grinch stole Christmas, and during this pandemic, remember how we are indeed people of faith, sustained in prayer, hope and love. As we ponder dark nights looking for a meaningful Christmas full of light and joy, or even through the "Hark!" of an angel, I cannot help but recall the word of grace from Tiny Tim at the end Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol: "God bless us, every one!"