We wake in the mornings to a world that’s in terrible trouble and with a glance toward heaven—with maybe a little reproach in it—we wish it all were better. We should get involved in easing things! That I know, and Matthew 25 calls for it! [Matthew 25 is not simply about doing kind deeds; it’s identifying Jesus Christ with the needy and oppressed.] The gloom generated by it all can overcome us but in the name of Christ believers should resist it because we have good reason to resist it.
Victorian writer G.K. Chesterton always pointed us in the right direction. He has somewhere said that the very sound of a distant barrel organ grinding out a tinny tune in a London fog defies the harsh reality of a night with its suffocating blanket of airborne filth. G. Studdert Kennedy saw so much as a chaplain during WWI that it broke his heart. He said he knelt one evening in a huge field where a host had fallen and the stench of death was overwhelming. In his dismay that was near despair a breeze carried the fresh and lovely smell of flowers from some far off field and his mind steadied. There was more than what he knelt among. [Holy One you know very well how difficult it is for millions of poor souls to believe this. We believe but help our unbelief and help us to deny the reasonable and inevitable doubt spoken by the pain generated by the awful wrong of this world. This prayer in Jesus.]
A needy family blanketed in choking smog opens the envelope and finds a generous gift—a distant barrel organ pours out its tinny challenge. A whole consignment of food and clothes is delivered to a deeply distressed family’s door—a breeze carrying a lovely aroma. Gifts of things, gifts of telephone calls, gifts of expressed sorrow and sympathy, gifts of education that brings skills and makes people employable, gifts of wounds healed and obstacles overcome, gifts of jobs given, gifts of medicine supplied, gifts of letters written, gifts of money and offers of help with the children, gifts of sympatheic glances, gifts of patience with the desperate and demanding and gifts from people with great power who fling doors open that were tightly shut and barred, who rippied down dust-laden and rotting curtains and throwing windows wide open and letting in light and fresh air.
All gallant barrel organs, refreshing breezes and snatches of lovely and redeeming songs!
And then there’s that baby in a cattle shed!
We can’t help it. We become accustomed to sights and sounds and truths—even when they’re profound or mind-bending in their glory or power. The first sight of the Grand Canyon or the Niagara Falls or the setting sun in Thailand or a first time hearing of Beethoven’s 5thperformed by a full orchestra in the right building might take your breath away. But live near them or have occasion to see or hear them every day and familiarity while it might not breed contempt will certainly take the edge off awe. We can’t help it. We don’t have it in us to live in ceaseless rapture.
But leave a truly profound truth for a while and go walking through reams of books, a library of books that deal with delightful, interesting, humorous, touching or useful matters and come back to that massive truth. They’re all “sweet” little books that makes us smile at one another while we turn to another hymn or another “nice” subject but they don’t put us in touch with massive truths and the foundations of our faith. In fact–God help us authors and publishers–they often keep us from them. But when you’re seized by one of those foundational truth don’t you—even if only for an hour—feel that you’re in touch with what you were made for? Don’t you—even if for only an hour—don’t you feel that your eyes are being opened to your destiny and the sense that you have a place in this world? Don’t you experience the conviction that all is not wrong with the world?
Hosts of people have experienced that at this time of the year. For one reason or another they were able to get past the shabby commercialism and dismissed the rising cynicism provoked by the sickening selfishness and their souls went to Bethlehem. It was as if they were actually there and the child, alone for a moment with them, looked back at them and they were lost in wonder.
What does this child mean? What does it say that he is here? No, no, forget for the moment the sermon points, the nice little homilies, the pious sweetness and the familiar carols. Look at him! Ponder for a while his very presence in our world! What does he mean? What does it mean that he is actually there? What is his physical existence saying to us? If he isn’t God incarnate nothing matters but what if he is just that–God incarnate–what does his being here mean?
Look out into the night and into the moral pollution; listen to the cry of the world, of little nations that are ravaged and countless individuals who have no immediate experience that leads them to think that they matter to anyone. And here lies a baby, an actual baby! And what does that mean? Shouldn’t we think of barrel organs in the fog, snatches of cosmic truth in song and a breeze from another world—from the Land of the Trinity?