One of the most unexpected turns I have had to growing older has been my marked change of attitude towards Christmas carols. As a child and a teenager nothing could bore me more. Who knows how many family reunions at Christmas time I was then asked to play some Christmas carols on the piano, only to have to reply that I don't know any. I really just couldn't be bothered back then to learn any.
Today I still can't play any of them, but for such a markedly different reason, namely that just about any of them (at least the serious ones, the ones worth playing, anyway) make me all weepy and overcome with emotion. "What Child is This...," "'Round yon Virgin Mother and Child...," and "God Rest ye Merry, Gentlemen..." - and I'm a goner. (Excuse me while I get choked up for a while.) Such beauty too good for the world, and far too easily taken out of it altogether.
The difference of course is quite easy to explain. I know what they mean, now. The whole universe is a vast place of cold and emptiness, and without caring whether we live or die, whether we know ecstatic joy or the profoundest suffering. The only exception would be those tiny enclaves where warmth and love and light are found, in those little domestic churches known as families, more occasionally in larger gatherings. Perhaps that is why all those scenes of lonely and homeless persons shivering outside in the cold strike such a chord with us. How fortunate are those who are not to be among them! How fortunate are we all, on this little earth, plunging through the blackness and void of outer space! How fortunate those few animals and shepherds sharing the Cave of Bethlehem with our newly born Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, His sinless mother Mary, and her most chaste spouse Saint Joseph. No matter how cold or drafty it may have been, there was Love Himself, shining His radiance throughout that holy Cave.
After all, what is the real warmth and light, but love? And how many stories, legends, books, shows, movies, pageants, and programs are there to tell us of what Christmas is about? But has their lesson ever really took? I can never understand how anyone can see them, read them, hear them, sing them, learn of them, attend them, and then just walk away, saying "that was nice," and then back to humdrum life as usual.
Among my own personal favorites are those kind of "Twilight Zone" type stories (especially those that predate the Twilight Zone) such as "It's a Wonderful Life" with James Stuart and Donna Reed, or any of the many variants and versions of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" (I admit I am rather partial to the one that stars George C. Scott). Let's look into them each a bit:
In "It's a Wonderful Life," George Bailey works in a local Savings and Loan office, a "mom and pop" operation not tied to any large financial conglomerate, but based (as collateral) on the homes and businesses of its customers. But in this particular Christmas season, when things are tight (as they have been since the Great Depression), a crucial $8,000 is lost just as a Bank Examiner has arrived. George, who has sacrificed his eager desires to travel and see the world so as to keep the Savings and Loan open and be a cause for good in his community is at his wit's end and realizes that he would be worth more dead than alive. It is at this point that an angel is dispatched to help him.
He wishes he had never been born, and the angel brings him to an alternate version of his home town in which he was never born, and the good he had done was never done. People whose lives he had saved were not saved, the town was a ruin, having been left to the "mercy" of savage financial powers, the woman he married instead ended up as a lonely old maid, his children did not exist. How dare he wish he had never been born?
His own life is saved through the workings of everyone's prayers and the angel, as practically the whole town pitches in to donate the needed $8,000 in an astonishing show of goodwill on the part of so many he has helped. The point of all this is how much good even just one individual can do, how much difference one life can make, if only it is well-lived, a life of love, of generosity, of kindness, of goodness, a life spent fighting evil and helping the lowly and downtrodden.
The story of "A Christmas Carol" is so well-known I won't reiterate it, but see the life and choices of a young Ebenezer Scrooge that shaped him to be the sort of "financial power" not at all difference from that fought by George Bailey in the other story. One of the most devastating lines in all of literature is when his fiancée leaves him, telling him "May you be happy in the life you have chosen!" In that is an echo of that most fearful pronouncement God can make to a soul, "May you be happy in hell with the god you have chosen over Me!"
The Ghost of Christmas Future shows what will happen if things are not changed, and even the Ghost of Christmas Present hints at the same with regards to Tiny Tim, "I see a vacant seat in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race will find him here." But fortunately the future is not written yet, there is still a chance for things to be different, as Ebenezer Scrooge discovers the meaning of Christmas, of letting God's Own love rule and guide his life and show him all the good he can do. Though one cannot alter the past, one can alter the future, at least our own future, and the future of those whose lives we touch. As the great Satchmo (Louis Armstrong) once sang, "I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do; they're really saying I love you."
For myself, I have never understood how anyone can have seen such productions, said "that was nice," and then got up and walked out of the theatre having not even thought of learning the lesson to be gained, that the people in our lives, even the ones who annoy us, are our most precious assets. I know they say that "no good deed goes unpunished." Perhaps I am a glutton for punishment, but as to those "punishments" that come for doing good deeds may I acquire as many such "punishments" as life permits! There is no more accurate measure of the worth of a person's life than that. "Blessed shall you be when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man's sake. Be glad in that day and rejoice; for behold, your reward is great in Heaven. For according to these things did their fathers to the prophets" - St. Luke 6:22-23.
In the coming hard times, I can only hope and pray that such hard times might at least serve to bring us together, especially since nothing else has. Let us be willing and eager to give with all due grace, and also, when necessary, to be able to receive the gifts of others with a similar due grace. Most of all, I pray that the hard times to come may be an occasion to draw us all together, and an occasion for miracles that only the One, Whose birthday we celebrate, can effect.
"♪ Have a very merry Christmas... ♪"