A Pause for Hope on Christmas

On December 16, 1944, the German Army threw 410,000 men into unsuspecting American lines in the Ardennes forest, achieving total surprise in a last-ditch effort to turn the tide of the war in Germany’s favor.  By Christmas, the Germans had been reinforced with another forty thousand men, and the Battle of the Bulge was well on its way to becoming the second deadliest battle in American history.  December 1944 was the most desperate Christmas for the United States since the aftermath of Pearl Harbor exactly three years before.  Promise hung by a thread, especially for the young men freezing in the Ardennes forest, boys who wished for nothing more than hearth, home, a dose of hope.

Battle of the Bulge

Christmas 1944 was desperate for U.S. Troops

Back in the United States, the star-studded musical Meet Me in St. Louis had just been released in movie theatres.  The cast was filled with well-known Golden Age actors, but the central star was twenty-two year old Frances Gumm—better known to the world as Judy Garland—who’d first catapulted to fame a few years prior in The Wizard of Oz.  MGM and Judy Garland both intended for Meet Me in St. Louis to be the instrument that transformed Garland from teen idol (she’d starred in several films alongside Mickey Rooney at that point) into mature star.

MGM hired red-hot songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, who’d already worked on Girl Crazy and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, to write the book and score for Meet Me in St. Louis.  The film’s central story involved sisters Esther and Tootie moving against their will from New York to Missouri over Christmas.  In a key scene, young Tootie worries that Santa Claus won’t be able to find her in her new home.  At the same time Esther, Judy Garland’s character, worries that the new-found love of her life will forget her when she moves away.  Martin and Blane built the book around the number Garland would sing in that scene.  They titled it “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The songwriters wanted both the scene and the song to be tragic, and the emotions they intended the song to evoke were irony and pain.  The song’s original opening lyric—no kidding—was, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas; it may be your last; next year we’ll be living in the past.”

Judy Garland was often underestimated.  She’d spent months prior to filming Meet Me in St. Louis visiting American troops serving in Europe.  She had seen first-hand the look in young men’s eyes, seeking hearth, home, and hope.  And she knew the recording of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” would be shipped to soldiers at Christmas time—the very Christmas, it would soon turn out, when desperation was at its height in the Battle of the Bulge.  Judy Garland knew that young American soldiers didn’t need more irony and pain.  They needed a pause, a moment when the noise and fear could momentarily subside, and a note of promise would say to them, “This reality is temporary.  You are not alone.  Hope will prevail, and you will make it home.”

And so, in an era in which starlets were practically owned by the movie studios and did what they were told, Judy Garland refused to sing the song that had been written just for her, and the filming of Meet Me in St. Louis came to a screeching halt.

Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis

Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis

Our contemporary images of the Nativity can fool us.  Even earlier today, when at 4 o’clock we watched our parish children perform the Nativity pageant in plush costume—including among the sheep a Christmas triceratops—we imagined the story with a “Precious Moments” gloss, with the shepherds scrubbed clean of desert grime, the animals doe-eyed and soft, and the warm light of the Eastern star blanketing the tableau with a gauzy glow.  I wouldn’t ever want to give up those images, but it’s important for us to acknowledge that they are all pretend.  Let’s rehearse the reality of the Nativity story.

Mary is pregnant at probably fourteen years of age.  Joseph initially believes Mary has been unfaithful to him.  He knows he is not the father.  A distant Caesar demands that the Holy Family travel one hundred miles across a treacherous desert filled with bandits just so the emperor can tax them.  They are pawns in Caesar’s chess game, and they have no choice but to move through danger in Mary’s pregnant state.  When they arrive in Bethlehem, a town whose very name ironically means “house of bread” or “house of plenty,” everything is scarce.  There isn’t even a room for Joseph to rent.  And so, to keep his nearly bursting wife from exposure to the elements, Joseph agrees to bed down in a livery stall with animals.  There is nothing doe-eyed about this scene.  It is dark; it is dirty; it is fearful.  I am a father, and I can imagine Joseph’s anxiety and desperation to keep Mary and their unborn child safe.  I can also imagine that Mary’s fear, as the one who carries the child, is exponentially greater.  Events are happening to them, and they need a pause, a moment when the noise and fear can momentarily subside, and a note of promise say to them, “This reality is temporary.  You are not alone.  Hope will prevail, and you will make it home.”

It is in that context, that moment of anxiety and fear, that Jesus is born, that the heavens open and the shepherds in the field are awestruck before the angel’s song, and that the very stars in the heavens indeed pause in wonder.  It is in that moment that the words spoken by Julian of Norwich thirteen hundred years later must be heard in the stable stall: “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”  That is the promise birthed into the world along with the Incarnate God, the promise that from this moment on God is with us and we are not alone, that goodness and grace will, ultimately, prevail.

holy family to bethlehem

There is so much yet to come.  Very soon, the Holy Family will be on the move again, this time fleeing murderous Herod and escaping as refugees to Egypt ever farther from home.  Years after that, Jesus will begin his ministry, and Mary will plead with him to come home, fearing for both his mental health and his safety.  And finally, Mary will stand at the foot of the cross, leaning on St. John for support, as her son suffers pain from which no parents can, ultimately, protect their children.  All of these things have yet to happen, and they will happen.  But on Christmas, there is a pause.  The Christ child is born, and the birth is the promise of Emmanuel, that God is with us, and that nothing past and nothing yet to come will be able ultimately to thwart God’s victory.  It is the promise that no matter what we face in this world, we face it alongside the God who is now incarnate in the world with us.  The birth of the Christ child reveals that, in the end, all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.


We could do with such a pause, I think.  In our world, and, for many of us, in our individual lives, there is plenty of anxiety, and noise, and uncertainty, and fear.  We already know enough irony and pain.  What we need is a note of hearth, and home, and hope on tonight of all nights.  We need to know that we are not alone.

Twenty-two year old Judy Garland knew that the boys fighting in Europe, holding out desperately against the German Army at the Battle of the Bulge, needed these things.  She would not yield to cajoling or threat, and she forced MGM to rewrite her signature song.  She was right, and it worked.  A movie show tune that otherwise would have been forgotten in the dust bin of the silver screen instead became, due to her courage and insistence, a timeless paean to hope.  As author Ace Collins says, “When battle weary men in Europe and the Pacific heard it, they clung to the song as if their dreams were carried on each word and note.”[i]  When soldiers heard the song, they could pause and be reminded that, no matter what, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.  So…

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on your troubles will be out of sight

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the Yuletide gay
From now on your troubles will be miles away

Here we are as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more

Through the years we all will be together
If the fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough

And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.


Merry Christmas!


[i] Collins, Ace.  Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, 79.

Refiner’s Fire

Fire has been in the news a lot lately.  This year’s wildfires in California have been the worst on record.  The Camp Fire alone burned more than two hundred thirty-four square miles, killed seventy-seven people, and consumed the entire town of Paradise (now ironically named) displacing a population of twenty-six thousand.  One viral video of a couple fleeing Paradise, driving down a street with sheets of flame rising on either side of the car, looked like something from Dante’s Inferno.  Fire destroys utterly.  It leaves only ash in its wake.

Paradise, CA fire

Paradise, California, engulfed by the Camp Fire

That destruction is why fire has been used as a means of choice, both metaphorically and literally, for punishment throughout human history.  The model for hell utilized in scripture was Gehenna, the smoldering garbage dump in the Hinnon Valley outside the walls of ancient Jerusalem.  Gehenna, always within sight of the city, perpetually belched flame and gas.  As an image of eternal punishment it was, thus, a powerful deterrent to bad behavior.  As this-worldly punishment, there have been times when those in authority used fire as the sentence for religious offenses such as heresy.  Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer himself, the author of the first Book of Common Prayer, was gruesomely burned at the stake by Queen Bloody Mary in 1556.

The awesome destructive power of fire and its association with punishment have led us to fear it.  The mere whiff of smoke, and we scramble to find its source and stamp it out.  We may be perplexed, therefore, when today the prophet Malachi tells us that God will send a messenger ahead of the nativity, someone who is to ready us for the coming of Christ, and that that one will be like “a refiner’s fire” whose very goal is to burn us.  How can that be good news of any kind?  How is that a herald we’d want to receive?  Oughtn’t we to stamp out that message as soon as we detect it, and go on with our lives lest we be surrounded by sheets of flame?

Thomas Cranmer

Last summer my family and I visited the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.  In addition to the grand house, the estate includes, among other things, a working blacksmith’s shop.  I’d never seen a blacksmith at work before.  He told us that the temperature in his forge was more than one thousand degrees.  The heat from that fire could be felt fifteen feet away.  Its pulsating, potentially destructive power was obvious and ominous.  The blacksmith took a small, dull ingot of metal, and as he spoke to us he periodically thrust the ingot into the fire.  In the meantime, he would hammer the lump of metal in a manner that looked to my eyes like nothing other than mindless pounding.  But as we watched, that dull metal began to take on shape.  And twenty minutes after the blacksmith began, it had become a delicate leaf, with striations and veins and a luster that seemed to emerge from nowhere.  What had been an opaque and formless lump was a thing of light and beauty.  Though I watched it happen with my own eyes, it seemed almost miraculous.

In our world of offices and service industries and virtuality, we’ve lost skills such as those of the blacksmiths and metallurgists, and consequently we’ve lost an understanding of the refiner’s fire.  An ingot is thrust into a refiner’s fire until it reaches a molten state, and then the dross of impure metals is skimmed from the top while the precious ore remains, and in the case of steel, stronger than it was before.  The refiner’s fire is not a fire of destruction, in other words, but of purification, and strength, and wholeness.  It is the difference between the slag and the leaf, between darkness and light.

There is one other thing to remember about fire, which we see in the springtime after a fire has consumed an area of land.  Though it reduces to ash, fire also fertilizes and makes way for new green shoots to grow from the soil.

And in these ways the Advent messenger is like the refiner’s fire.  Just as we’ve lost the skills of the blacksmith, we’ve nearly lost the spiritual wisdom that tells us, forthrightly, what we must do if we are to encounter, and embody, and be redeemed by the birth of grace into our world.  Within ourselves, in the depth of our very souls, we must plunge into the foundry and meet the refiner’s fire, so that the dross in us can be skimmed away and the precious ore of our essence be made stronger and lustrous.  But what does that look like in a human life?

Biltmore blacksmith's leaf

The Biltmore blacksmith, refining slag into a rose

Before he was famous, the brain scientist David Eagleman, well known to this cathedral, wrote a little book entitled Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives.  The book consists of forty of Eagleman’s ideas of what the afterlife might be like, ranging from the whimsical to the terrifying.  One account he titles “Mirrors,” and in it he says of us, “When you think you’ve died, you haven’t actually died.  Death is a two-stage process [and you’re not completely dead yet…In life] you were much better at seeing the truth about others than you were at seeing yourself…So poorly did you know yourself that you were always surprised at how you looked in photographs or how you sounded on voicemail.  [But now, in this first stage of the afterlife,] all the people with whom you’ve ever come into contact are gathered.  The scattered bits of you are collected, pooled, and unified.  Mirrors are held up in front of you.  Without the benefit of filtration, you see yourself clearly for the first time.  And that is what finally kills you.”[i]

I suppose that’s both whimsical and terrifying: To look into the mirror honestly; to allow ourselves to see not our pretended motives, rationalizations and justifications for the things we have sometimes done or who we have sometimes been, but rather to see our true reflection from the perspective of the others with whom our lives have intersected, both intimately and casually.  That would burn.  It would sear.  It might destroy.  But it might not.  If we are people of faith, if we trust in the God who made us in love, then that mirror would not be the fire that consumes Paradise but rather the refiner’s fire.  An inward acknowledgement, deep in the foundry of the soul, of who we have been at our best but also at our very worst would allow us to see the dross for what it is and skim it away, preserving the silver, and gold, and steel which is our essence—the very image of God within us—which has always been beautiful and precious to God.  Such fire is not punishment.  It is not hell, and it is not forever.  It is, rather, the unavoidable path from the slag to the leaf, from dullness to luster, from darkness to light.

It is also what makes room deep within us for the incarnation of God, for the birth and growth of the Christ who is coming.  That is why the messenger comes now, so that the dross can be skimmed, the ash blown away, and new shoots of redemption take root within us when Christ comes.

This is hard work.  It is, indeed, easier to stamp out this message while the flame is only a flicker, to ignore it and carry on with our lives.  To heed the refiner’s message and encounter the refiner’s fire—to look upon the dross of our lives honestly—requires owning things about ourselves we’ve never owned before.  It requires taking responsibility.  It requires mending relationships when we can.  And it requires valuing that which is truly precious while letting go of that which dulls us to love and grace in the world.  We can plunge into this forge, but will we?  The work is hard, and it begins with it some pain, but it also brings with it, as Malachi says, the promise of Christ, “the covenant in whom we delight.”  It refines us so that we become the very manger in which Christ can be born.

[i] Eagleman, David.  Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, 43-44.