Christmas Blessings, PDX!
Last night we stretched a bit at Operation Nightwatch worship. The folks were good sports about trying to sing an older Christmas hymn that arouses some curiosity in me. It's a vocal stretch. As a kid I remember singing "O Holy Night" in Christmas programs at St. Paul's Lutheran Elementary School, Arlington, Nebraska. Yet I don't find it in The Lutheran Hymnal that I grew up with. It's not in the Service Book and Hymnal (red) of the old Lutheran Church in America, nor is it in the Lutheran Book of Worship (green), This Far By Faith (burgundy) nor Worship (dark red) that have followed. It's not in Liturgy, a wonderfully varied worship book of the General Church of the New Jerusalem that was on the shelf at Powell's Books.
I finally found it in the 1974 edition of Book of Worship for United States Forces, a great old compilation of Judeo-Christian worship materials. The other books all have the sentimental favorite, "Silent Night, Holy Night", but not "O Holy Night". Curious to me. The theology of "O Holy Night" (OHN) is vastly better. It does not paint a sentimental, idealized child's world of the birth of Christ that seems stuck in suspended animation. Consider these OHN lyrics:
He knows our need, to our weakness is no stranger...
Truly he taught us to love one another,
His law is love and his gospel is peace;
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
And in his name all oppression shall cease...
Apostle Paul would identify with and affirm all of that.
I didn't pay too much attention to OHN for most of my life. Then I visited Washington, DC over Veterans Day in 1997. At the Women Veterans of Vietnam Memorial sculpture, people were telling their stories. One of them happened to be Kammi McCleery who had been a "donut dolly" with the USO in Vietnam. She talked about putting on Christmas celebrations with the troops there and asked the crowd to sing with her. "If you've ever celebrated Christmas in Vietnam, sing along and sing loud," she said. We sang "O Holy Night".
Well, I hadn't been to Vietnam but celebrated a couple of Christmases in Turkey while in the USAF. Still, I knew a few people who had celebrated Christmas in Vietnam, especially the one right before the Tet Offensive. Wes was one of those. He would survive Tet but not April. So I said to myself, "I'll sing this for Wes and everyone else who has spent Christmas in a war zone." That's when I began to stand in awe of the lyrics and the message of OHN.
Fall on your knees, Oh, hear the angel voices!"
Imagine the scene of the worst firefight in Vietnam, the horror of the trenches and poison gas in WWI, the Battle of the Bulge, Nazi death camps, Guadalcanal, Bataan, Iwo Jima, Normandy. Imagine the darkness of drug addiction, child prostitution, the depth of depression and despair, the grim rape of Darfur, the genocides of that land and Uganda, Stalin's pogroms, the Shah of Iran's Savak secret police and torture chambers. Imagine Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bombing of Dresden, Saddam's gassing of the Kurds. Imagine jumbo jets being swallowed by massive Twin Towers and their collapse. Imagine what you will in this world that is broken. In that most unlikely way, God already had it all in view and gave his Son anyway and precisely because of it all.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn...
Preaching to people who are homeless, cold and wet is at once a challenge and at once one of the greatest joys in life. They don't need Germanic fairy tales. They need some bona fide gospel, some hope to stay off the booze, off the drug and on the path to another day.
So we sang "O Holy Night" and I saw a few tears. Every time I listened to the choir and the baritone on the CD we used for our worship accompaniment I began to bawl. I saw a few tears last night, and it was all I could do to keep myself together well enough to lead.
If God's love does not put us on our knees in tears, if the message of that love from people like me does not have the power to leave us bawling in awe, then you (that's collective YOU, all y'all out there) should fire us. That's all of US, all who wear the collar, carry the Bible, preach the word that is to be the best news ever heard. Doesn't matter if we are Bishop Hansen (Lutheran), Bishop Jefferts-Schori (Episcopal), Pope Benedict, Billy Graham, Luis Palau, Pat Robertson or James Dobson. If the word we bring does not put you in touch with a Christ who leaves us bawling at being held in the arms of love, then we are wasting your time and failing God. Miserably. Fire us! Fast! And by all means start over and get it right.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Til he appeared and a soul felt its worth...
Fall on your knees. Hear the angel voices that had those unclean shepherds bawling in the fields, those scared and shaking troops doing the same....and hoping for the break of a new and glorious morn. Your soul is worth God coming down to earth to be born into human poverty.
Fall on your knees and hear the angel voices proclaiming a love that dissolves every darkness you can name. Hear the voices and strap on some knee pads. You might want to stay there a while. Go ahead. Bawl like a baby. It's consistent with God's story 100%. O Holy Night! Indeed! Amen.