Hark the Herald Angels Sing (again and again and again…)

Other years, if you were to ask me to name my favorite Christmas song, I probably would have chosen “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” The tune is uplifting, and the lyrics are meaningful. How many Christmas songs convey the precise theology of “God and sinners reconciled,” or, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see/ Hail the Incarnate Deity”? “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman,” and, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” are two candidates for good Christmas theology; many other seasonal songs are weak and shallow and trite.

The original words to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” were written by Charles Wesley; today’s familiar version comes from a rewriting done by George Whitefield. The original tune was composed by Felix Mendelssohn; text and tune were brought together by William H. Cummings. The hymn has prominent placement in our Christmas memories, showing up in A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life, among other seasonal favorites.

Perhaps that ubiquity of the song has left me jaded this year. It is the seven o’clock song on our Christmas carol clock, which means that I hear it most mornings after exiting the shower and heading toward the kitchen for breakfast. Then I hear it again most evenings after supper. Perhaps I have overplayed the hymn too much other years—especially the version from Amy Grant’s Christmas album of 1983. That version features an enthusiastic orchestra and choral setting of the hymn, including a repetitive instrumental rendering of the third line which has become an earworm, cycling endlessly in my head while I am trying to access other thoughts. Many years, I have set my alarm to waken me Christmas Day with Amy Grant’s version of “Hark….” Not this year.

Another problem I have with the song is a joke my father told years ago about a commercial version of “Hark…”—one that promoted Beechum’s pills. My father never claimed to have invented the joke. Indeed, it shows up on the Internet with various back stories, no doubt all of them apocryphal. But my father’s version includes a line that I have not found anywhere else, so he may have contributed his own wit to the joke. At the risk of putting these words into your head and ruining the song for you (as it has evidently been ruined for me), here are the words my father sings: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing/ Beechum’s pills are just the thing/ Peace on earth and mercy mild/ Two for men and one for child/ Joyful all ye nations rise/ Try the new economy size…”

I don’t know whether to say “I’m sorry” or “you’re welcome.” J.

“If it wasn’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all”

On Thanksgiving Day, I broke a mirror.

The mirror was in our storage shed/workshop, a structure that was replaced in 2017 after an electrical fire. Many of the materials stored in that shed until the fire were discarded, leaving room for the shed to function also as a dance studio for my daughters. Their mirror was tall and narrow, the kind of mirror people often attach inside a bedroom door or bathroom door so they can see how their clothing looks from head to toe. Needless to say, the mirror was also helpful for their dance practices.

I was preparing to cook the Thanksgiving turkey. I always cook the turkey outdoors over charcoal, leaving the oven in the kitchen free for bread, muffins, vegetable casseroles, pies, or whatever else the other cooks have on the menu. Rather than using starter fluid, I ignite the coals with an electric coil. Since I locate the grill a safe distance from any other structure, I need a long electrical cord to work the starter coil. On Thanksgiving, I was leaning over the mirror to plug the extension cord into the outlet when I bumped the mirror and it fell forward, shattering on the shed/dance studio floor.

I am not superstitious. Borrowing a joke from baseball manager Joe Madden, I’m not even “just a little stitious.” I agree with the adage, “It’s bad luck to be superstitious.” We have a black cat in our household; it crosses my path several times a day without bringing me bad luck. Friday the thirteenth is just another day on the calendar. I don’t bother to knock on wood after saying that things have been going well so far. Breaking a mirror is an inconvenience, and replacing the mirror is an expense, but I’m not worried about seven years of bad luck. (Although I did gash one of my fingers picking up the pieces of the broken mirror, a wound that had to be bandaged for the next five days.)

If there were any truth to the superstition that breaking a mirror brings seven years of bad luck, I would like to declare the bad luck retroactive to the breaking of this mirror. I would like to cancel the bad luck of the last three thousand days, extending back to the start of the Mayan Apocalypse in October 2012. In particular, I would like to cancel the shed fire, the various automotive troubles the family has faced, and a few other disappointments along the way. Failing a cancellation of the past, I would like the broken mirror to signal an end to seven years of bad luck. No more quarantines, no more rigged elections (or accusations of the same), no more dark nights of the soul.

Life is too complex to blame bad luck on black cats or broken mirrors. In spite of the darkness, a number of good things have happened in the past seven years. My children have received college diplomas and have started jobs. Our family debts—pretty serious at the start of the Mayan Apocalypse—have been paid. I’ve written and published a few books. Yes, things could be better, but they could also be a lot worse.

On Thanksgiving Day, I broke a mirror. The pieces have been hauled away with the family trash, and a new mirror has been purchased and put in the shed. The turkey was eaten and enjoyed. My finger has healed. Christmas decorations have gone up, Christmas gifts have been bought (but not yet wrapped), and Christmas cookies are being baked. Our annual Christmas party at work has been replaced with a gift card—for an introvert like me, that’s a win. We won’t be traveling this Christmas season to spend time with family—a mixed blessing, since I’d like to see these people, but also a massive reprieve from stress and tension. The end of the year is coming. I hate to put too much pressure on New Year’s Day and the change of calendars, but closing the book on 2020 may provide a boost of morale. Life goes on, the good with the bad. What more is there to say? J.

Christmas decorations

If I said I was having trouble raising energy and enthusiasm to decorate for Christmas this year, most people would probably assume that this is a virus-crisis problem. But, the fact is, the last several years I have lacked energy and enthusiasm for celebrating the Christmas holidays.

The Salvageable family has so many Christmas decorations—and has had so many for most of our years together—that long ago I started a custom of adding one decoration a day to the house from Thanksgiving Day to Christmas Day. The first decoration, which makes its appearance on Thanksgiving, is a clock which plays one Christmas carol to mark the hour from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. (It assumes that we all want to sleep between ten and seven.) Then, day by day, more items would appear: wreaths, hangings, tabletop displays, books, music boxes, candles, mugs, china, and so on. It became a game for the children, guessing which decoration would appear next, searching the house to find that day’s new decoration. I even kept lists from year to year, keeping track for myself the order of items to put on display. Big projects like hanging lights from the eaves or putting up the tree would be reserved for weekends. Smaller decorations would appear during the course of the week.

The holiday pattern was broken a few years ago when we had a fire May 5 that damaged a storage shed/workshop and its contents, including our Christmas decorations. Our insurance company served us very well, paying to replace the building and those contents that were permanently damaged and paying to clean the items that could be restored. They refused to consider trying to clean our artificial tree, but the same tree has remained in service after surviving the fire. (It was not in the path of the flames, being scrunched into a box on the floor, and so smoke scent was the only problem with the tree… and we were able to air it out pretty well that spring and summer, first in the garage and then in the new shed.

Our most valuable decorations—including two hand-crafted ceramic manger scenes—were successfully restored. Some items were scarred, such as the hand-sewn tree skirt; it has stains from the smoke and heat, but it looks no worse than any tree skirt that has survived for years in a family with children and cats. We got rid of a few things that we didn’t really like anyhow. But the cleaning of the items that summer and fall returned them to us in new packaging and boxes which have made it harder to locate and bring out just one item a day, as I did for years before the fire.

So now things appear as I have time and energy to pull them from the shed. Today, for example, I am ready to pack up the special china in the china cabinet—plates and cups and saucers that are on display year-round but used only on Thanksgiving and Easter—and replace them with the special Christmas china that will be on display for about a month and used on Christmas Day. If it rains today, I’ll get the china out tomorrow, and this evening I will instead hang more Christmas cards on the wall.

When I was little (and, I am sure, even before I was born), my parents would hang Christmas cards on the living room wall. They had red and green ribbons that they stored the rest of the year; but, as Christmas cards came in the mail, they would add them to the display until, by Christmas Day, the living room wall was covered with dozens of cards from family and friends, just as my parents had signed and addressed Christmas cards to dozens of households around the beginning of December.

I began pursuing the same custom with our household, using white ribbons instead of red and green. But years ago I noticed that we were not receiving dozens of cards each December. So I stopped discarding the year’s cards after Christmas and instead collected cards over a number of years, discarding duplicate pictures and pictures I found unappealing. We now have over one hundred cards hanging in our living room, and I have more than one hundred more to put on the hallway wall tonight or tomorrow.

The tree is different this year. Last winter we added a kitten to the household. He is now full-grown, but still filled with energy and curiosity. So instead of putting up tree and lights and ornaments on the same day, we decided to put the tree up last Saturday, to add the lights a couple of days later, and to hang the ornaments this coming weekend. So far he has taken to the tree well—curling up on the tree skirt, not trying to climb the tree. On the other hand, he has cleared the windowsill of candles that we usually display there. Other years we have survived young cats climbing the Christmas tree, but he is the first cat we have had in the family who demanded access to the windowsills even through the Christmas season.

I am decorating this year as I decorated every other year, but it’s mostly for the benefit of the rest of the family, not for myself. Last month I changed radio stations in the car to avoid the annual tradition of playing Christmas songs wall-to-wall from the middle of November until the end of December. (It wouldn’t be so bad if they would include traditional carols in their playlist; instead, it’s holiday drivel like “I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus” and “All I Want for Christmas is you.” Some mention of the Reason for the Season would at least make it palatable, but the reality is far from sacred.) We have our Christmas DVDs set aside—Miracle on 34th Street (the 1947 edition), A Christmas Carol (the 1951 edition), A Christmas Story (1983), A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), and a few more—but I haven’t taken the time to sit down and watch any of them yet.

In short, my Christmas perspective is expressed by a quote from “When Harry Met Sally”: Boy, the holidays are rough. Every year I just try to get from the day before Thanksgiving to the day after New Years. Except that we have two seasons to handle: the Advent season which precedes Christmas, and the twelve days of Christmas which begin on the 25th of December and continue into January. None of the decorations will come down until after the 12th day of Christmas. But the satisfaction of boxing them for another eleven months and returning life to some semblance of normal sounds very appealing to me on this 11th day of December. J.

Blessed are the poor…

  Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh… But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep….” (Luke 6:20-21, 24-25)

What does this mean? Are poor Christians the only good Christians? Are wealthy people banned from the kingdom of heaven? Is money a sin and wealth a crime? Should all Christians give away their possessions and live in poverty until the Day Christ appears in glory?

Some Christians have taken the words of Jesus in that way. Others have read the rest of the Bible and have found more context for these sayings of Jesus. God has blessed the wealthy—he did not reject Abraham or David or Solomon or Lydia because they had worldly wealth. He allowed Job’s wealth to be stripped away from Job, but at the end of the test he gave Job twice as much wealth as he had at the beginning. If Jesus wanted all Christians mired in poverty, he could not expect us to give food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, or shelter to the homeless. If Jesus wanted all Christians to be mired in poverty, he would not expect his people to set aside money to help the poor, to do the work of the Church, and to support workers who spend their careers working for the Church and Christ’s kingdom.

At times, Jesus seems sympathetic toward capitalism. He tells parables about investing money, expecting a profit (Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19:11-27). In fact, Jesus told more stories about money and investment and business than he told about planting seeds, tending crops, or taking care of sheep. Jesus knew that his followers would be involved in the world. He always intended to bless some of them with worldly wealth, making it possible for them to love their neighbors and to provide for the needs of the poor and the oppressed.

The problem is not with how much money people have; the problem is with how much money people want. A poor person can still be guilty of idolatry, dreaming about the wealth and riches he or she desires. The Ten Commandments close with warnings against coveting—wanting the property of another person. God blesses some people in poverty and some people in wealth. Being poor in spirit is not a matter of how much you own; being poor in spirit is a matter of how much your possessions own you.

The Bible endorses no economic system. Through history, most Christians have accepted whatever economic system surrounds them, doing their best to love God and serve their neighbors with any blessings God provides. When given a choice, though, the Christian does not only ask, “What is best for me?” The Christian asks, “What is best for my neighbor? Which system offers the greatest promise of helping the poor and oppressed, of making life better for all people?” In the rare instances where Christians may choose, their choice should reflect love for neighbors rather than greed and self-centered thinking.

Jesus said, “For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When those who heard it asked, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus did not answer, “the poor, and those who give away all their possessions to become poor.” Instead, he said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” Salvation comes only from the work of Jesus Christ. It is not earned by being poor or by becoming poor. Jesus endorses neither capitalism nor socialism; Jesus condemns neither capitalism nor socialism. He rescues sinners whether they are rich or poor or middle class; he rescues sinners whether they live in a capitalist country, a socialist country, or any other kind of country. The work of Jesus is for all people; Christianity transcends politics and economics. J.