Saturday, December 24, 2016

O Holy Night

"Stars in the Wilderness"

I just finished reading a very poignant message written by a young friend who was having a very difficult time celebrating Christmas this year. The darkness and violence in the world, the ugly face of racism again raising its ugly head in this country and personal tragedy in his own life made him feel like he wanted to shut out all the beautiful and tender images he was about to encounter this Christmas Eve: brightly colored trees, carols in a church, the tender story of a sweet little infant born in a Bethlehem manger as angels light up the sky singing songs peace and goodwill.  With all the darkness he was experiencing it was all sounding very hollow and empty to my friend this year as he struggled to figure out what Christmas might actually mean.

As I read his message, it was so very reminiscent of something that happened in my own life many years ago on a Christmas Eve when I was a college chaplain at Syracuse University. It was just a few days before Christmas when we got the news that Pan Am flight 103 had crashed over Lockerbie Scotland, blown apart by a terrorist bomb. Thirty five students from Syracuse University who were studying abroad were returning home for Christmas and they were on that fated plane.  I personally knew many of them.   

As I look back at it now that was probably one of the darkest periods of my entire life. Such profound sadness permeated everyone and everything on campus. There was a profound sense of loss and dismay over such senseless violence that took so many young lives before they even had the chance to be lived.

When Christmas Eve came along I wanted nothing do with any of it. In light of all that had happened I just couldn’t face the joy of Christmas.  I wanted to shut it all out, go to bed and wake up in a few days after it was all over. But our now-adult boys were still small children at the time, wide-eyed with excitement, Santa was about to show up. So like it or not, Christmas wasn’t about to go away.

It had been our long-standing family custom to celebrate Christmas Eve by honoring an old-world tradition of eating a celebratory Christmas “vigil meal” with food prepared from special recipes that had been handed down for generations.  During this “vigil meal” it was also a custom to place a lighted candle in the window and to set an “empty place” at the dinner table. The purpose of the candle was to alert the “Christ” about to be born that there was an empty chair at our table and a place had been set, waiting for him to come and join us.

On that dark Christmas Eve back in Syracuse, our family, friends and some university colleagues gathered at the table to share the “vigil meal.”  In light of all the recent tragedy our spirits were glum and we were all doing our best to “put on a happy face,”  when suddenly and unexpectedly the doorbell rang. When I went to answer it I discovered a lone student standing at the door. He apologized for barging in and informed me that he was unable to go home for Christmas. He was out walking alone when he saw that the “Chaplain’s Residence" was all lit up and a party was going on - he rang the bell and took the chance that maybe we might invite him in.

Of course I hugged him and welcomed him with open arms—and guess where he sat?

Yes, there was an empty chair awaiting and a place was already set for him at that Christmas Eve table. As he sat and ate among us, none of the stunning symbolism of it was lost on any one of us.  Thirty five of our students had just been killed but that night one young man was sitting at the place reserved for the “Christ” to be born that night.  Our dark and gloomy mood soon turned into joy. The darkest night became a “Holy Night” as the the dying embers of love were stoked again by a glimmer of hope that sparked in the night.

Tonight many people around the globe will gather together. Some will be filled with joy and others will be struggling with what it all means - some may be facing darkness, perhaps feeling the brokenness of our fragile human condition. It seems to me that it’s only when we struggle with the darkness that we can ever hope to see the light.  I remember something Martin Luther King Jr. once wisely said:

Only in the darkness can you see the stars

Regardless of whether or not you will be celebrating Christmas this night, my wish and prayer is that this may be a holy night for everyone.

In the darkness, may you see the stars!

Blessings and Peace.

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