A Christmas Story (Redux)

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” Revelation 21:4 NIV

I first published this a few years ago.  The stories involved were related to me as true stories, by the soldier himself.  It is a story of redemption.

It was Christmas eve, and the soldier stood in the mess line, shivering a little. It was late, so the line was thankfully short, for the air was bitter cold.  His turn came, he got his hot chow and coffee, then looked for a place to sit.

He had just arrived in this small town in France  with his unit the day before, December 23, 1944.  One day he was relatively warm and safe in Britain, and the next he was preparing to face combat for the first time.  They were moving to the front in the morning, on Christmas Day, to take up positions in the Ardennes Forest and help counter the German offensive that would become known as the the Battle of the Bulge.

Because of the lateness of the hour, there were only a few men in the mess area, but the soldier wanted to be alone, so he walked off a little looking for a place to eat his food, drink his coffee, and think.  The soldier had gotten several opportunities to avoid combat, and even the military.  When he was first called up and went for his physical, a spot showed on his lungs. The doctor wasn’t sure what it was, but suspected tuberculosis, and was going to fail the recruit because of it.

After some persuasion, the soldier-to-be convinced them not to fail him, but to let him come back in several weeks to retake the physical.  During the intervening weeks, he changed his lifestyle, exercised and ate better, and sure enough, when he returned, the spot had disappeared, and he passed.

Later, after basic training, while still stateside, a Sargent came around asking if anyone had any clerk typist skills.  The soldier did and said so, and the Sargent took him to an office to fill in for a day for someone who was out.  At the end of his shift, the Sargent told him to report back the next day, but the soldier replied that his unit was going overseas, and that he could not come back.  The Sargent told him not to worry about that, he wasn’t going anywhere, the Sargent would see to that, just report back the next day.  No, the soldier insisted, he would ship out with his unit, and he did.

He thought about these things, and his new wife he left behind, his mother, and home.  After walking a short distance, an unexpected sound got his attention.  He stopped, and listened, and heard it again.  It sounded like a baby softly crying.  It seemed to be coming from a darkened alcove nearby.  He walked toward the sound.

As he approached the alcove, some light from the street penetrated the darkness, and he could make out a woman and infant, huddled together and wrapped against the cold.  He drew nearer, and as he did, it became apparent to him that the woman was trying to nurse the child, but something else also caught his attention.  There was a glow around the mother and child, a halo around each of them.

Now, the soldier was not a religious man, and in some respects, quite the contrary.  It wasn’t that he was a bad man, but he carried in his heart an anger and bitterness, against G-d, and His church, that were founded in the experiences of his childhood, experiences he had never reconciled.

His parents were immigrants who didn’t have much, even when his father was alive and working.  However, when his father died and left his young wife with five small children, things became much worse.

His mother took in laundry, washed floors, and did whatever she could do to feed her family, but it just wasn’t enough, so she went to the local parish church for financial assistance.  Instead of giving her help though, they sent her to the welfare office.

The soldier remembered going with his mother as a young boy, to translate for her, because she spoke little English.  He remembered her humiliation, and his own, in having to go on public relief, and he didn’t understand why the church would not help.  First G-d took his father from them, and now His church turned them away in their time of need.

Later, when barely in his teens, the soldier found himself, along with two of his brothers, in a home for boys.  The home was run by an order of Christian Brothers.  The Brothers were good men, who provided the boys with the basic necessities: food, shelter, education, and when required, discipline.

There was a problem though, the home was infested with cockroaches, and it was the job of the boys to catch the cockroaches, as many as they could.  In fact, they had a daily quota, and the Brothers, each evening, would check and count each boy’s collection of insects, to ensure that they had found their fair share.  Those who did not had to keep searching until they did.

Sometimes, when the roaches were hard to come by, and a boy was tired and hungry, he would break some of them in half, so they would count as two.  This worked fine if he didn’t get caught, but if he did, there was the aforementioned discipline.

Discipline consisted of the offending boy being held face down across a large barrel, and having his behind whipped with a switch.  The process did little actual damage, aside from a few welts and bruises, but it was extremely painful, and to say the least, the boy’s were terrified of the punishment.  They would beg and plead for mercy, to no avail.

Not all offensives merited this form of punishment, but lying about meeting your cockroach quota did, and the soldier had received this punishment on several occasions, until he learned how to fix his roaches so that they actually looked liked two whole bugs.  There was a trick to it, you see.  Whenever you caught a big one, you cut it in half with your thumbnail, and then smashed up each half a little bit, and that was it; dinner, and bedtime, were at hand.

The soldier thought of none of these things though, as he peered into the alcove.  He was a little surprised by his vision, this picture of a haloed Madonna and Child.  Was it the angle of the light, was it only his imagination, or maybe the pressures of facing combat the next day were getting to him?

As he wondered at the sight, he was broken from his brief reverie by the realization  that the woman was motioning to him.  It took a few moments, but he soon understood that she was indicating to him that her breasts had no milk for her child.  His wonder turned to pity and sadness.  What could he do?

He thought of the canned milk at the mess truck, so he told her, as best he could, to wait for him, that he would get milk for her to give to her baby.

He hurried back to the mess area, and found them packing and preparing for the next day’s deployment.  He walked up to the mess Sargent and quickly explained to him the situation, and asked him for some milk.

The Sargent was in no mood for this intrusion, and told the soldier that he could not give him any milk, but the soldier persisted.  Just a little milk for the baby?  The Sargent replied that the milk was for American soldiers, for their coffee, not for French civilians.  The soldier said, well, OK, I have some coffee, how about giving me a little milk for my coffee.  Finally, the Sargent relented and gave the soldier the milk “for his coffee”.

The entire negotiation took only a few minutes, and the soldier hurried back to the alcove with the milk.  When he arrived though, the mother and child were gone.  In fact, there was no sign of anyone, or that anyone had even been there.

The soldier would think about this experience throughout his life.  He would relate the story to his wife when he returned home, and later to his children.  The story of his visit by the Madonna and Child on a cold Christmas Eve in an alcove in France.

It would be nice to relate that the soldier’s anger at G-d would dissipate after his experience, but unfortunately, this would not happen for many decades.  Decades of tragedies and triumphs, joy and sorrow that would follow.  Near the end though, he did seem to find some peace, but only G-d knows for certain.

So the significance of the story isn’t that the vision immediately healed the soldier’s anger and disappointment, or that it even gave him great comfort, except maybe for a few brief moments.  The significance of the story is the significance of Christmas itself.

For the Christmas Story is the story of a promise, a promise of a redemption that is yet to be fulfilled.  Yes, Christians will speak in the present tense, and tell you they are redeemed, and it is true, this was accomplished and completed on the cross, and demonstrated by the Resurrection.

But, in our lives, we still have our tragedies and disappointments, and our anger; and the world is still full of violence and chaos, and of mothers who cannot feed their children.  So, it is this part of the promise that is unfulfilled, our physical redemption, and the redemption of this tragic world we live in.

It is a story of hope.  Hope for the world, hope for each one of us, even hope for the angry soldier.  G-d can deal with anger, because to be angry at G-d is still to believe in G-d and it is to recognize G-d’s sovereignty, over us, our lives, and the world.  After all, what would be the point in being angry at a G-d who wasn’t sovereign?

Jesus once told us to be either hot or cold.  G-d can warm and soften the coldest, most hardened of hearts; He can temper the most heated and passionate of hearts, but with the lukewarm heart, the indifferent heart, what can He do?  What can be done with someone who just doesn’t care?

The Christmas Story is also a story of our own helplessness in the redemptive process, except according to G-d’s will.  The soldier,  in the end, was unable to help the mother and child, despite his best efforts. Yet redemption came to him that day, even if he did not realize it.  He could have simply ignored the mother and child, dismissing them, like the Sargent, as not his problem.  After all, what had G-d done for him anyway?  Instead, he responded with sympathy and compassion.  Its not that his simple act of getting the milk was in and of itself redeeming, but it’s the fact that he would even do so that demonstrated the redemption that was already in his heart, despite his anger.

Finally, there is this.  We think we know people.  We see what they do, we hear what they say, and we fear for them.   We see those who are angry at G-d and man, or who live dissolute lives.  We see people who seem to make every bad decision a person can make, and sometimes we may wonder, what hope is there for that person?  What we do not know, and only G-d knows, is what redemption may lie in that persons heart.  We see the outside, but G-d sees the inside, and only occasionally, if ever, does G-d give us a glimpse of what is truly there.

So, we should not fear, for others, or for ourselves, but should always look for the best in each; and when we can’t see that best and fear starts to take hold, think of the Christmas Story and its promise of redemption.  After all, who is redemption for, anyway, if not us?

Grace

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV

It was a Saturday, late-afternoon and we were hanging out at the “church lot.” The church lot, for all intents and purposes, was our multi-purpose playground.  We played baseball there in the spring and summer, we played football in the fall, and when we were doing neither of these things, we would just meet there and “hang out.”  This was one of those hang out days.

When we were hanging out at the church lot, we often got into discussions, usually political, as our families were a mixed bunch politically, and sometimes about religion, even though we were mostly Roman Catholic.  I enjoyed these discussions very much, whether political or religious, and looked forward to them – and if at times they got a little heated, well, so much the better.  We can all benefit from having our beliefs challenged now and then; but, little did we know how challenging this particular day would be.

The church, for which the church lot was named, had a reputation as being one of those “fundamentalist” congregations.  The church building itself was relatively new, and was a large, impressive brick structure, with one of the tallest steeples in a town that had about a dozen churches.  Not only was the church impressive, but it was part of a complex of buildings that included a K-12 school and a gymnasium.

It was near the gymnasium that we came across several young people who belonged to the church.  They were a little older than us, but not by much.  There were three of them, two boys and a girl. The girl appeared to be the oldest.  They asked us what we were doing.  “Just hanging out,” we said.

They asked us what church we went to.  We told them.  They asked us if we would like to hang out in the gym.  “Sure,” we responded.  I for one had always wanted to get inside the gym. After all, a church with its own gym?  Not common in my youth.

Once we got inside they began to engage us in conversation, which soon turned into a discussion about religion. Ahhhh, so we weren’t the only kids in town who liked to debate.  This was too good to be true.  A discussion about religion with others who were not our religion.  I was enjoying this very much.

The conversation was polite and went very well, but then the young lady said something like, “you know, just living a good life doesn’t get you into heaven.”

A momentary silence ensued as we, the Catholics, tried to figure out what she was trying to say.  Finally, one of us asked her.  “I mean,” she replied, “that doing good things, going to church, praying a lot, doing those things won’t get you into heaven.”

This sounded ridiculous to me.  Doing good, helping people, going to church and praying won’t get you into heaven?  This was to much.  “Then how do people get to heaven,” I asked?

“By believing in Jesus,” she said.  “By putting your faith in Him.  He died for your sins.”

Oh, oh, now I was getting it.  Of course, being a Catholic, I knew that Jesus died for our sins.  But I thought she was a little confused.  “You still have to be good, go to church, pray; you still have  to be a good person,” I said.

“No,” she said, “You just have to have faith.”

At this point we, my friends and I, decided it was time to leave, and so we amicably parted company with our new found debate opponents.  It had been an interesting discussion, and one that I would never forget.  But that thing about “being good won’t get you into heaven” – what was that all about?

Sometime later in religion class, I was in parochial school at the time, the topic  came up about the seeming conflict between faith and works.  There is a passage in the Letter of James which goes “But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?” James 2:18-20

This, apparently, has been debate between Protestants and Catholics for centuries.  Are we saved by faith (Protestant)?  Or, are we saved by works (Catholic)? I thought that this was an interesting topic, and I came down firmly on the Catholic side-no surprise there. It wasn’t long after this, though, that I started to explore other, non-Christian beliefs, and I thought little of my debate or the question of faith or works for quite a while.

Years later I would come back to my Christian, and eventually Catholic faith, but when I did, I took a distinctly Protestant route.  Of course, the faith/works debate was central to my “re-conversion,” only now, I came down hard on the Protestant side of the argument.  I understood what the young lady was trying to say so many years prior and what Paul was saying in Ephesians.

As fervently as I now believed that our good works could not save us, still, that passage from James gnawed at me.  “Faith without works is dead faith.”  What did that mean?

As time passed, my discomfort over James grew.  This was probably due to the fact that although I was a Christian believer, I was not exactly a paragon of Christian behavior.  My misbehavior would cause me to question my faith, and this is when the passages from James would start to kick in.  “Faith without works is dead...Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”  

It wasn’t that I was trying to justify my misbehavior with Ephesians, I knew that some of the things I was doing were wrong.  But I would take comfort in Ephesians – that is until the passages from James came to mind.  No comfort for the back-slidden sinner there, for sure.  So, of course, I would avoid James as much as possible.

I was able to do this successfully for quite some time, but it finally got to the point where I just had to come to terms with James.  I was getting less and less comfort from Ephesians, and more and more discomfort from James.  But I faced a dilemma.

The dilemma was this:  Whenever I tried to “be good,” I would be more inclined not to “be good.”  Paul describes a similar experience in Romans 7:21: “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.”  So, I thought, the answer was not in trying to be good.  Then how do you be good?

Of course, the passages from James, the ones that were causing me so much pain, also held the cure.  I started to realize that when my faith was strong, my natural inclination was to “be good.”  When my faith was weak, well, my inclinations were otherwise.  But according to Ephesians, faith, like salvation is a free gift from G-d.  Now my temptation here was to blame G-d.

After all, if faith, like salvation, is a gift from G-d, and if G-d wanted me to be good, he had to give me more faith, right?  No, wrong.  Faith is faith.  OK, I know that this is a tautology, but nevertheless, it is a very meaningful one.  Faith is not weak, it is not strong – it just is. And we either have it or we don’t.  When G-d gives us faith, and he gives it to all freely, what we then do with it is up to us.

One of the things we can do with faith is act on it, and when we act on our faith in G-d, then by definition, we are doing good.  How could it be otherwise?  Faith comes from G-d, we act on and out of that faith; would G-d let us do evil? I don’t think that is possible!

The other thing we can do with faith is not act on it.  But if we act, and not on faith, then what are we acting on – or out of?  We are by default, acting on and out of our own desires, motivations, and (good?) intentions.  Uh-oh. What did Paul say again?  “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.”

So, I learned that it is when the person of faith stops trying to be good, it is then that faith takes over, and we are good.  But, faith is very willing to step aside when the person of faith wants to take over for a while.  This is when we say our faith is weak; but no, our faith is not weak, we are weak.  And when we act out of our weakness and not out of our faith, we are putting our weakness on display and hiding our faith.  Again, “Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” 

I started to become comfortable with James.  I started to use my “good works,” or lack thereof, as a measure, not just of my faith, but of how well I was doing in letting G-d be good in me, so to speak.  Whenever I try to do the right thing under my own power, my faith starts to weaken, and I find myself less able to do the right thing that I desire to do.

When I stop trying to do the right thing, and just rely in faith, on G-d, I find that what I do is the right thing.  How could it be otherwise?

So who is right in the faith versus works debate?  Are the Catholics right? Do our works of faith save us? Or, are the Protestants right?  Is faith alone sufficient to save us?  The answer to those questions, I believe, is “Yes.”