“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news!”
On the weeks leading up to Christmas we love the sound of the doorbell at our house. It doesn’t get rung too often during the rest of the year, but these days it’s more common, and the chime of the bell means one thing: the UPS delivery man has done it again. A messenger who brings good news: there is a package—or maybe more!—on our front step. No matter how quick we are to respond, the delivery man is usually already off the porch before we arrive at the door. We catch a glimpse of him scurrying back to his vehicle, bounding into the driver’s seat, on to the next stop, on to the next doorbell. In his wake, our excitement is just beginning. We bring them in, squirrel them away in secret, and wait for the proper time to wrap and then open them. The doorbell is kind of a fun by-product to on-line shopping.
And what a job: to deliver the presents, to deliver the news! Of course, if you are receiving a package from the Martin family this year, that doorbell will be ringing after Christmas since we were kind of behind the eight ball in that department lately. And with Christmas cards. But I digress. In any case, it will be a glad sound, and those are beautiful, parcel post feet.
The Epiphany Youth group spent some time this week as those “beautiful feet” on the front porches of several of our homebound members. The youth were not delivering any packages, per se, but they were delivering good news. They went, you see, to sing Christmas carols to them, and, so long as the Holy Spirit made it possible, to spread a bit of the cheer of that good news of Jesus’ birth. It was a wonderful evening. The weather cooperated nicely, and our caravan of about 10 vehicles managed to make it to three members’ homes before we had to come back here for supper. We learned, among other things, that not everyone knows all the words to “What Child is This?” by heart, but we managed to mutter through on the strength of a few clear voices. We also learned that they’d like us back more often. One gentleman, confined to his house by advanced Parkinsons’, stuck out a wavering arm and invited us to come again next week.
Singing Christmas carols to the homebound is actually something my own church youth group did when I was a kid. It was a yearly thing. We’d spend one night right before Christmas making the rounds, visiting different homes and assisted living facilities with our rusty-voiced Christmas cheer. Occasionally the person to whom we were caroling, although frail, would be able to make it to the door and join along in the singing. Sometimes, if it was too cold, they’d stand behind the window and peer out at us, our faces barely lit by the glow of the small candles we held in our hands. We never actually went in anyone’s house, however. It would have been too crowded, too much of an imposition.
One year, however, our pastor took us to sing at the home of Bob Snow, an elderly member who was in the final stages of cancer. And by “final” I mean the last few days. He was bedridden, already on a respirator or oxygen or some other apparatus to aid his breathing. An unused bedpan or two were stacked up on his nightstand. There was no other way to sing to Bob than by standing in his bed room. By his bed. Where he was dying. And so we all traipsed in there, well past the front porch, through the family room, and encircled his bed. The only lights in the room were provided by our candles.
The last we’d seen Mr. Snow in church was months before, and he looked much different now. He was wan and skeleton-like. His weak face, which was as white as his name, was already sunken in from the toll of the disease, and the whole scene made me, a middle-schooler, feel downright uncomfortable. I was barely at ease in my own skin in those days, and I didn’t know how to look at his. I remember elbowing my way back from the front row. “Why did his wife bring us in here?” I thought. “Surely he could have heard us from outside.” And there, in that room, as the breathing apparatus gurgled and hissed, we sang Christmas carols at death. We lifted up our candles, whose glimmer now reflected off the wet cheeks of his family members, and sang these happy songs—these songs of good news about someone’s birth—to some who was obviously dying.
Hark the Herald Angels Sing, glory to the newborn King!...Joy to the World! The Lord is come!...Silent Night! Holy Night! All is calm, all is…bright? Indeed, although maybe not in the way I could recognize. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger of those who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’”
At that time, in those teenager days of robust health and raging hormones, it didn’t make much sense why we would do something like that, why we would make some of us so uncomfortable at such a joyous time of the year, why we would pull back the curtain that hid the dying from our light and think on such sad things. To sing songs of a birth while someone was dying? What kind of a cruel, insensitive endeavor is this?
But they—the wife, the sons, the pastor, and Mr. Snow, no doubt—were thinking about this: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” The good news that we were announcing—the good news that we have brought to us this great morning—is not simply that Jesus is born, but that Jesus is born to die. And if, as the prophet Isaiah says, our God reigns at all, it is because God has reigned in places like Bob Snow’s bedroom the week before he died. When we say that the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, we mean that he lived the full extent of the human experience. He suffered what flesh suffers when it encounters the brokenness of creation. He endures what our flesh endures as it lives in a world prone to danger and disease. God has miraculously been wrapped in our skin, as wan and weak and pale as it can sometimes be. When we hear that God’s Word—God’s very essence and very happening—became flesh and lived among us, then we hear the length that God is willing to go bear his arm and make us his forever. We hear of the lengths God will go to restore human dignity. And that is precisely what Mr. Snow would need to hear. As it turns out, maybe it is those lesser-known words of “What Child is This?” that say it best, and that bear being taken to heart:
“Nails, spear shall pierce him through
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
the babe, the Son of Mary.”
Earlier this week, as my family sat down to eat our dinner, our five-year-old daughter requested to say the blessing. She said thanks for the food, but before she said “amen,” she inserted a final petition with the most serious inflection: “And God,” she said, “help us remember that we can’t open our presents until Christmas. Lord, Have mercy. Hear our prayer.”
Well, it’s Christmas! No time for holding back! Ring the doorbell and rip open the gift, the gift of Jesus. Tell the good news…on the porch, at the table, at the bedside, in the tomb: Salvation has come. Our God reigns!
|Orthodox icons of the Nativity of Jesus often depict his birthplace as a cave, evoking his place of burial.|
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.