I read about a certain lady in the Midwest who takes a kind of pious pride in having a Christmas tree decorated only with ornaments that are symbols of the first Christmas and the Christian faith: angels, shepherds, a manger, stars, camels, sheep, donkeys, wise men, hearts, doves – even a rooster (the familiar weather vane on many churches) crowing out the good news.
You will not find on this woman’s tree any Nutcracker soldiers, Santa Clauses, holly wreaths, cute little mice, gingerbread houses, cowboy hats, bells, gnomes or jeweled orbs that hang on most people’s trees.
One year the woman’s best friend came for dinner and she was surprised, as they looked at the tree, to find there a chimney sweep – a small wooden figure all in black, complete with top hat and carrying a brush and a ladder. The friend asked, “Why a chimney sweep? How is it a religious symbol of Christmas?” The lady replied, “Well, it seems to me that the message of Christmas issues a clear call to us to sweep the clutter and grime out of our spirits. We need to clean out the soot of leftover fires of the past, so we are ready for burning issues of the present.”
Because she is right, I suggest that she add the figure of John the Baptizer to her Christmas tree for the same reason. For if we are on our way to the manger at Bethlehem, we must pass through the desert where we will meet this man named John, who prepared the way for the Messiah by calling the people to repentance for the forgiveness of their sins.
The good news of Christmas is the discovery that while sinner we may be, sinner is not all we are. To repent is to want to be the much more than sinner that we can yet become. It is to accept the richness of our life, to claim our gifts and employ them, to realize our true stature without pretension or self-aggrandizement.
To repent is to name our fears and the negative distortions that diminish us; it is to give up our system of insecurity defenses and explore the new, to reach beyond. To repent is to take the risks of love, to trust others and to let them love us.
It is to accept we are loved by God for who we are. It is to let Jesus be our Savior and friend, to open our lives to the persuasion of his presence. To repent is to pray with the country gentleman, “O God, I ain’t what I ought to be, and I ain’t what I’m gonna be, but thanks be to You, I ain’t what I used to be.”
It follows that repentance is not only finding life with new dimensions through God’s grace, but also deciding to live out that life, to share the Kingdom at this in between moment, to bear fruits of repentance. We are “to live lives of holiness and godliness,” to let God’s forgiveness in Christ be the doorway to a transformed today and an even larger tomorrow.
We don’t have to let the world squeeze us into the mold; we can, instead, be God’s change agent in our corner of the world. We don’t have to believe and expect the worst about life and the world. We can believe and expect the best, find it and give ourselves to it. We don’t have to accept ugliness and littleness as normative; we can create beauty and we can ennoble the human spirit.
We do not need to under expect God, to be cynical about miracles. We can instead open ourselves to God’s surprises, believe that the impossible does happen, that resurrections still split the darkness with God’s light, that things do not have to stay the way they are.
A few years ago I heard a physician tell of a visit she made, with other medical leaders from various countries, to the 100,000 forgotten children of Romania. During the cruel and oppressive regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, children born with deformities, neurological problems, developmental disabilities or crippling diseases were deemed by the state as “irrecuperable,” were taken from their parents and placed in institutions where they were discarded as forgotten and worthless “nobodies.” They were placed in oversized cribs where many of them lay until they died. For the most part, the children were fed only milk, which resulted in their becoming emaciated and even more crippled.
The children were never held by a human being, never caressed or touched, except once a day when their diapers were changed. Even more dehumanizing, the children had no names. If they grew too large for the cribs, they spent most of the day huddled together in one corner of a bare room until they were ordered back to bed. Some spent the day naked, even in the coldest winter.
My physician friend said the condition of the children reminded her of the pictures and stories that came out of the holocaust and extermination camps of Nazi Germany. In one of the facilities she visited she said the only color, in that otherwise drab and dreary place, was a little rag doll held by a little girl. She had been holding it since her mother brought it to her during the only visit she ever made – five years before.
But into this dark and desperately inhumane hell, light has come. Certain religious, medical, and humanitarian groups, including Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Charity, have taken children out of the “Homes for the Irrecuperable” and placed them in environments where they are fed, clothed, given medical treatment, and are held and loved.
Pale, chalky skin has turned pink; blank staring eyes now have a sparkle; there are occasional smiles on faces; and the children have responded to the hugs and caresses they are given. Sometimes they reach out with their twisted arms to return the embrace.
Most important of all – each child is given a name and now has an identity. The children are no longer “irrecuperable.” They are cherished for who they are – precious human beings, made in the very image of God.
“Irrecuperable, impossible, irreconcilable, irreversible, hopeless” – these words are not in God’s vocabulary. God sent His Son to us in the miracle of Christmas to give us fresh possibilities, new beginnings, forgiveness, and hope now – and for all our tomorrows unto eternity.
Dr. Fred Andrea is the pastor of Aiken’s First Baptist Church.