“The sun is shining, the grass is green, the orange and the palm trees sway, there’s never been such a day, in Beverly Hills, LA.” Irving Berlin wrote these words as the spirit of our country was in tatters. World War I and the Great Depression had taken their toll on the American spirit and the threat of another world war loomed large. Now, the song is the most recorded Christmas song of all time. “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know…”
How unlikely – that Irving Berlin, a Jewish, Russian immigrant, born in Siberia, would write one of our country’s most beloved Christmas songs. I think what makes this song so popular isn’t that it is a particularly Christian song, or that it is a particularly American song – it is a human song. “But it’s December the 24th, and I’m longing…” Irving Berlin longed for more than being up north – and I think he knew we do too. His only memory before his family immigrated when he was five was lying on the sidewalk, watching his home burn to the ground. In 1928 on December 25th, his three week old son died. Every year on Christmas Day, Irving and his wife, Ellen, visited their baby’s grave. When the American people first heard it, Bing Crosby sang it on December 25th, 1941, just weeks after Pearl Harbor was attached.
“It’s December the 24th, and I’m longing…” longing for Christmases gone by when we would all be together, longing for peace, longing for the purity and beauty and innocence of the white landscape bright with light after a new-fallen snow, longing for hope like the hope of children listening for sleigh bells.
It’s December the 24th, the eve of the birth of the One for whom the world waits in expectation. It’s December the 24th and I’m dreaming of a Christmas just like the ones I used to know. Irving Berlin understood our longing for home as a longing for the place from which we came.
There is a deeper level than “White Christmas” in our longing for home, though. We long for our true home, for our origin and our ultimate destination, God.
Augustine, one of the church fathers, said it this way: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Augustine wasn’t always a saint, though. He tried to satisfy his longings in other ways. He was born in 354 AD to a pagan father and a Christian mother. He gave his mother plenty of reason to pray for him in his teen and young adult years – stealing for fun, practicing pagan religions, seeking excessive pleasure – and he was annoyed that his mom did pray for him. When he was 17, he moved in with a mistress, who had his son about a year later. They lived together for 15 years, until he left her and his son to be engaged to a 10 year-old heiress. But by the time she turned 12 and was marrying age, his life had changed completely. Augustine had been searching for something, his spirit longed for something, but it wasn’t until he was hanging out with a friend in Milan and heard a child singing, “Pick it up and read it. Pick it up and read it.” that he began to understand what he was longing for. He picked up the Bible and opened it. He read the first passage he saw, these words from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, “Not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy. Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh. (Romans 13: 13-14)” Augustine said it was as though his heart was flooded with light.
And he realized God made him for God. The reason that there was an Augustine, the reason he existed, was to be in relationship with God, and until his heart settled into that relationship, he was restless.
Sometimes it is Scripture that floods our hearts with light. Sometimes it is something that happens or someone we meet or something somebody says. Sometimes it is something we see or a moment shared. When we were in Bethlehem this summer, we went to a shop that sold olive wood carvings. I went in thinking that I would buy a nativity. I looked at several. Some were stunning. But, then I saw the expression, the eyes, the love in the face depicting Jesus welcoming the children. I was mesmerized, stilled, my heart was flooded with light.
This is why we celebrate Christmas – the tree tops glisten, we gather with people we love, we share gifts and laughter and time – Chris offered this year to turn on the air conditioning so that we could still have a fire – and even in the midst of children in need of a nap and relatives that irritate and the work of getting Christmas dinner on the table, there are moments when our hearts are flooded with light, we are mesmerized, stilled, no longer restless. It is the work of God’s Spirit, but we have to be open to it, to be still, to allow ourselves to be mesmerized, to welcome the light flooding our hearts.
In the fullness of time, in God’s time, God sent his Son to be born of a woman and to live under the law, to experience the fullness of what it is to be human, and God adopted us. God not only humbled himself to be born, to be laid in a feed trough, to be visited by shepherds and star gazers, but he adopted every visitor to his manger, in every time and place, to be his sibling, to be his brother, his sister.
In Paul’s context, the Greco-Roman world, adoption meant that you were the true child of your adoptive father, who agreed to provide for your necessities, who could not reject you, and who could not force you into servanthood.
“You are no longer a slave,” says Paul, no longer a slave of false gods that promise to fulfill your longings but cannot. You are no longer a slave to the longings that only leave you wanting more: money and power, addictive substances and unhealthy relationships, retail therapy and comfort food,…there are more, what have you believed would satisfy your longings?
You are no longer a slave to those false gods, you are now a son of the One True God.” Paul uses the language of son, but not in a gender exclusive way; and here he also switches from using plural pronouns “we” and plural “you” to using singular “you.” You are now a son of the One True God. You are now a daughter of the One True God.
God sends the Spirit of the Son into our hearts, “Abba!” they respond. Our hearts call out to God with the same name that Jesus called him, the most familiar word for father in Arabic, “Abba! Daddy!” and we are his.
Our hearts are flooded with light, and we are home. May your heart no longer be restless. May you know your place in the family of God this year. “May your days be merry and bright.”