Stepping off the sidewalk into this store
Is to transport in time to a debonair era
Where the covering on the head defined the individual
Far beyond a pragmatic trucker’s baseball cap or skier’s stocking hat.
This is the place to come to leave behind the ordinary,
Separate from the rabble of the street
And find something extraordinary for the common man,
Designed from wool, straw or felt, sometimes trimmed in fur or feathers.
On this day the shoppers search high and low,
Hushed and reverent in this haberdasher sanctuary
Of stacked hats and wooden boxes, to peer in antique mirrors
Turning this way and that, smoothing and adjusting dapper brims.
The array of choices is overwhelming,
As is the diversity of heads to cover
From young to old, bald to shaggy,
A melting pot of noggins searching for a particular crown.
Fedora, trilby, cowboy, bowler, beret, newsboy, balmoral-
All are colorblind, equalizers of generations, races, genders
By fitting any worthy head, making a statement
Without a word needing to be spoken.
No heralding trumpets
Just softening shadows
Timed and tracked
Fingers of light
Over the eastern ridge of foothills
Caress the slopes of snow capped peaks
Bidding night farewell.
Horizon’s gentle glowing palette
Of pink and coral
Climbing higher, wider, deeper
Painting clouds beyond reach.
Every earthly thing bathed in gold
For a moment, glimpsed and grasped
Devoid of fanfare yet still miraculous
Too soon ordinary again
Although born anew.
It was my ninth birthday in 1963, and my family was driving to Washington D.C. for a few days of sightseeing. We had planned to spend the night in a motel somewhere in eastern Ohio or western Pennsylvania but my father, ever the intrepid traveler, felt we should push on closer to our destination. By the time 11 PM rolled around, we were all tired and not just a little cranky so we started looking for vacancy signs at road side motels. Most were posted no vacancy by that time of night, and many simply had shut off their lights. We stopped at a few with vacancy still lit, but all they had available would never accommodate a family of five.
We kept driving east, and though I was hungry for sleep, I became ever more anxious that we really would never find a place to lay our heads. My eyes grew wider and I was more awake than ever, having never stayed up beyond 1 AM before and certainly, I’d never had the experience of being awake all night long. It still goes down in my annals as my longest birthday on record.
By 2 AM we arrived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and my dad had reached his driving limit and my mom had declared we were not traveling another mile. We headed downtown where the brick Harrisburg Hotel stood some 10 stories high, an old structure in a questionable area of town, but the lights were on and there were signs of life inside.
They did have a room that gave us two saggy double beds to share for eight dollars, with sheets and blankets with dubious laundering history, a bare light bulb that turned on with a chain and a bathroom down the hall. I’m surprised my mother even considered laying down on that bed, but she did. I don’t remember getting much sleep that night, but it was a place to rest, and the sirens and shouts out on the street did make for interesting background noise.
Some 12 years later, I had another experience of finding no room to lay my head after arriving late at night in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, with supposed reservations at the local YMCA for myself and my three student friends traveling together on our way to Gombe to study wild chimpanzees. We landed at the airport after midnight after a day long flight from Brussels, managed to make it through customs intact and find a taxi, only to arrive at the Y to find it dark and locked. It took some loud knocking to rouse anyone and with our poor Swahili, we were able to explain our dilemma–we were supposed to have two rooms reserved for the four of us. He said clearly “no room, all rooms taken”.
The host was plainly perplexed at what to do with four Americans in the middle of the night. He decided to parse us out one each to occupied rooms and hope that the occupants were willing to share. He looked at me, a skinny white girl with short hair and decided I was some kind of strange looking guy, and tried to stick me in a room with a rather intoxicated French man and I said absolutely not. Instead my female traveling partner and I ended up sharing a cot (sort of) in a room with a German couple who allowed us into their room, which I thought was an amazing act of generosity at 2 AM in the morning. I didn’t sleep a wink, amazed at the magical sounds and smells of my first dawn in Africa, hearing the early morning prayers coming from the mosque across the street, only a few hours later.
So I can relate in a small way to what it must have felt like over 2000 years ago to have traveled over hard roads to arrive in a dirty little town temporarily crammed with too many people, and find there were no rooms anywhere to be had. And to have doors shut abruptly on a young woman in obvious full term pregnancy is another matter altogether. They must have felt a growing sense of panic that there would be no safe and clean place to rest and possibly deliver this Child.
Then there came the offer of an animals’ dwelling, with fodder for bedding and some minimal shelter. This stable and its manger became sanctuary for the weary and burdened and remains so to this day, unexpected and remarkable in how unremarkable it was. We are all invited in to rest there, and I never enter a barn without somehow acknowledging that fact.
There are so many ways we continue to refuse access and shut the doors in the faces of those weary travelers, forcing them to look elsewhere to stay. We say “no room” dozens of times every day, not realizing who and what we are shutting out.
There is no room in our busy and “important” lives–from the moment we rise through the frenetic pace of work and home activities, there is no room for the solitude of quiet prayer and reflection, and for shared gratitude and grace.
There is no room in our schools, where all mention of religious practices outside of academic study is unwelcome and eagerly litigated.
There is no room in our city squares or buildings, where nativity scenes are banished and replaced with winter festival scenes of snowflakes and snowmen.
There is no room in our homes where the TV and computer become the altars of worship and occupy more of our time than anything else.
There is no room in our hearts and minds as we crave food, sex, drugs more than the freely offered gift of life.
Small wonder we offer up what is just outside the back door of our lives, inhospitable, cold and dank. Few of us would invite our special company into the barn first and foremost. Yet these travelers don’t seek an invitation to come in the front door, with fancy meals and feather beds and fresh flowers on the cupboard. It is the dark and manure strewn parts of our lives where we need them most and where they are grateful to bed down. That is where He was born, and that is where He remains, in the humblest parts of our beings, the parts we do not want to show off, and indeed, most often want to hide.
2 The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.
3 You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as men rejoice
when dividing the plunder.
4 For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.
5 Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.
Zeal is not a word used in a positive way in our modern society, primarily because it is the root of “zealot”. The implication is someone with a fervency bordering on fanaticism, operating in an impassioned state we associate with radical religiosity. Yet at the conclusion of this beautiful prophecy about the coming of Christ written in Isaiah in Chapter 9, it is the “zeal” of the Lord of Hosts that will provide the unending peace. Zeal is the human manifestation of the Spirit of the Lord; it describes Christ Himself.
For followers of Jesus, on Christmas Day, how can we not experience the “zeal” of what the birth of Christ represents to us? This is far beyond the emotion-filled sentimentality of a lovely story. It reflects our astonishment, our enthusiastic response to the reality of the Incarnation, of God dwelling with us.
A light has dawned. We no longer walk in darkness.
Christ, our Zeal, the human form of the Spirit, has accomplished this.
Today the answer is “Yes”, over and over again. God’s fulfillment of His promises is manifest in His Son Christ Jesus, born as he was in simple surroundings, with no trappings of royalty or riches. And so God tells us “Yes” today, again and again, that we may know Him as He has become one with us. We have experienced God in the flesh, as He dwelt among us.
Christ is the covenant, the contract God has made with His people. We are bound to Him, even when we pull away and say “No” as we are wont to do, regularly and emphatically.
Young Mary is an example of how we need to be: when told the impossible, the implausible, the incomprehensible would happen to her, her response was not “No way–go find someone else!”. Her response was “Behold the willing servant of the Lord; let it be unto me according to thy word.” She says, in essence “Yes! And Amen!”
How often do we respond with such trust and faithfulness, understanding and accepting Christ as the ultimate “Yes” from God, who ensures our everlasting salvation?
In December 1963, it was of questionable taste to use styrofoam letters toothpicked together to spell out “Merry Xmas” in a family Christmas picture for our family Christmas cards. Why the X? Because we couldn’t get the whole word “Christmas” to hold together without collapsing into a mess of vowels and consonants. We certainly tried. So my dad made a special run back to the crafts store to buy an X so we could get this picture done while his three children were still spit combed, and polished clean. I vaguely remember by mother being a bit reluctant to use the abbreviation “X” to represent “Christ” in Christmas, as she thought it might offend a relative or two as possibly disrespectful, but we did send this picture out to the 100+ people on her list, and I don’t recall any fall out.
It turns out there is good reason for the traditional “X” in XMAS, and it is not to make Christmas advertising more compact, using less expensive space. It represents the first letter Chi of the name Christ in the Greek alphabet (Χριστός) and was used as an abbreviation for Christ (sometimes as below in the symbol known as the labarum, in combination with the “P” that represents the Greek letter “Rho”). This was sometimes a secret communication device between Christians, and often displayed overtly in worship settings. So the X is, in fact, a name for Christ, in shorthand. There is no disrespect meant, but rather a way that religious community members could easily find each other in sometimes oppressive circumstances.
Now, 46 years after this photo was taken, it’s the styrofoam that causes offense, knowing it will never break down in landfills, and simply can’t be destroyed without causing environmental damage. But the X representing Christ is here to stay. It may offend those who do not acknowledge the reality of God who walked the earth, dying in our place, broken in body only. His truth and spirit rose again and cannot, will not ever be destroyed.
We are in the midst of the building of a garage next to our house–a project we have waited on for 15 years. The plans were actually drawn a number of years ago, but there simply weren’t the resources available until now.
So the original plans were dusted off, updated, the builder selected and the project begun. The ground has been smoothed and prepared, the foundation poured, now the walls and support beams are going up. It all happens in a particular sequence, one step after another, so the building will be finished properly and safely. To try to put up support beams and roof before a foundation is built would be foolish. Likewise, a floor with no roof would soon become a pond.
There is a design, a plan, and a project underway by a Master Builder. Thank goodness our lives are in steady hands with a good grip and a sharp eye for detail.