I was planning to write this entry on Christmas Eve. That didn’t work out because the little kerfuffle with my wife finally came to a head that evening, so I had to spend the time there (and I’m glad I did). I was too tired after driving the family to San Jose and back for Christmas to accomplish anything else of note over the weekend. And earlier today we had separate visits from one of Sean’s caseworkers, one of Nina’s friends, and our landlord. So really, this is the first clear chance I’ve had to write my Christmas blog entry. On December 27. Oh well.
But it’s okay, I guess. Because what really makes Christmas important for me is not something tied down to a calendar …
To really explain, I have to go back a few years — say, sixteen or seventeen years. I was singing at the time in a fairly large (40-50 members) church choir, and we were preparing for our annual Christmas musical. This was in a congregation that did things up big, and produced some very high-quality events. Which meant a lot of work — if you were a choir member, the evenings of the second week of December were spent at the church plant, working, sometimes until 10 or 10:30 p.m. But by the first show, you knew those songs, possibly permanently.
And in 1994 or ’93 (or ’92? Not sure) there was a medley near the end of the musical — a combination of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and a tune called “God Is With Us.” The latter was a very simple tune, and I still remember the lyrics today:
God is with us — come and worship Him
Holy is the Lamb from Heaven’s diadem
All creation sing, for Christ the Lord is come
Clothed in wondrous love … forever God is with us …
Repeated twice. and then we went into “Hark the Herald …” A pretty generic piece of contemporary Christian songwriting, really — nothing that stood out as we were practicing it except that it had a hauntingly beautiful melody.
We did four performances of the musical that year — Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday morning and evening services — and that particular year, I was fighting a mild case of laryngitis. (Thankfully I sang bass, so it wasn’t that noticeable, and I was young, so I didn’t have the good sense to rest my voice. I was able to fight my way through it and was fine by Monday. Back to the story.) Being a bass, I was in the back row of the choir, on the top riser, seeing everything happening in front of me as I sang my little lungs out. And memory suggests it was the Saturday night show when it hit me.
God … is with … us.
As I’ve mentioned before, Christmas wasn’t a big positive when I was growing up. We usually spent it with my dad’s family, a bunch of combative and occasionally abusive Italians, and one of the annual traditions was Dad and Uncle Ron’s argument/uncompleted chess match. (Why they kept playing every year is a mystery to me, but I guess family traditions don’t have to make sense.) After my parents’ divorce, my mom and I seemed to come to an unspoken agreement that we could find better ways to spend the day … but I don’t know that we ever did. Mom did midnight mass at her Episcopalian congregation, and I just drifted. Christmas became our annual excuse to buy imaginative gifts for each other and not much more. I knew the story of the Incarnation and what it meant, long before I gave my life to Christ … but the time of the year had no real impact on me.
Until that song. Until I didn’t just know, but realized, that Christmas meant God is with us. And not just way back then, but forever.
Think of what that means, on so many levels. First and most obviously, it means that the Almighty of the Universe is here, and that He really knows what life is like for us. To use the old proverb, He’s walked a mile in our shoes. He understands us in a way no outsider can, because He’s no longer an outsider. He’s experienced life as we do, going all the way back to the uterus and all the way forward to death. So nothing we see or feel or go through is alien to Him. As the author of the epistle to the Hebrews stated, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are” (4:15). When Joan Osborne sang, “what if God was one of us?”, God’s response is, “well, I was!”
Furthermore, He’s not only experienced what we have, He’s beaten it. The last clause of Hebrews 4:15 is “—yet he did not sin.” He personally had to overcome everything we have to overcome — up to and including death and the grave. Because He’s won, He can help us to win and/or declare victory on our behalf. We don’t have to live life as downtrodden people; we have another option because He lived this life, and is willing (by His Spirit) to live it some more through us.
And that presence of His Spirit means that we’re not alone. Not ever. That, most of all, was what hit me — not just that God came to be with us, but that He IS with us. Right here, right now, and forevermore.
Human beings, regardless of race, creed, color or football allegiance, want to connect with others. As individuals, we join clubs, go on dates, marry, have kids, even go to church services, so that we don’t have to be alone. As a race, we seek out life on other planets and puzzle over the Fermi paradox, not wanting to be alone in the universe. There is a deep-seated loneliness we all seek to assuage. The apostle Paul called it an “inward groaning” (Romans 8:22-23), a pain of separation from which we long to be released. No matter how good our marriages or how large our circle of friends, we all feel it.
Well, that separation, to some extent, is ended because God came down to be with us — and He’s still here. In a foretaste of Heaven and a reprise of Eden, He walks with us and talks with us. He makes His presence known and felt. We may not always sense it but, if we belong to Him, we’ve experienced it enough to know He’s present and accounted for. We’re never alone, and we never have to be, because God is with us. For that twentysomething social incompetent, living by himself in a tiny apartment with no girlfriend, it was living water and bread from Heaven; for this fortysomething social incompetent with a wife and two kids, it still is. And I suspect that when I’m old and (completely) gray, it still will be.
God is with us — “Immanuel,” in the Hebrew — is the truth of Christmas. And it’s the one part that matters … every day of the year.