Redeeming Grace

Silent Night, holy night; Son of God, Love’s Pure Light; Radiant Beams from Thy Holy Face; With the dawn of Redeeming Grace; Jesus, Lord, at Thy Birth; Jesus, Lord at Thy Birth.

Taking a 5-year-old boy, who is the living definition of perpetual motion, to an orchestra and choral concert while he is in the throes of Christmas excitement was perhaps not entirely bright. But we did. The boy crawled all over my lap, conducting the orchestra in his own way, falling to the floor on occasion, and playing with my hair most of the time. Between my own incessant shushing and his commentary about the songs and sights, it is amazing that a) we were allowed to stay and that b) we got anything out of the concert at all. But we did. After all, this was the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus – perhaps the best orchestra in the US if not in the world.

The concert opened with a rendition of O, Come All Ye Faithful that was both melodiously traditional and hauntingly new. When we got to Joy to the World and the audience was asked to join in, a thought struck me. It was fleeting due to my son and his gymnastics, but it was a coherent thought and it went something like, “Wow! This is a Christmas concert in the truest sense of the word! Celebrating the true meaning of Christmas! Here is an orchestra and chorus and audience singing a Christian hymn of praise in a very secular, public place. Cool!” And then I had to disengage from the thought and the moment to prevent my son from crawling under the seats.

Shortly thereafter, I was relieved to hear the familiar opening bars of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. We can stand! Hallelujah! I leaned over to my daughter to explain to her that when King George II of England heard this music for the first time he was so moved that he had to stand and that because no one may sit when the king is standing everyone has been standing for the piece ever since. (I’ve also heard that he had nodded off, and when the first trumpet sounded out the notes of the Hallelujah Chorus, George awoke with a start and jumped to his feet. Others have suggested that as the head of the Church of England, George would have been very aware of the Jewish tradition of standing for hymns of praise and therefore was a) complying with tradition and b) accepting his own secondary status before the true king of the universe, Jesus Christ.) And then the thought hit me again. “Wow! Look at us all! Standing and praising God and heralding Jesus Christ as the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings!” My mind swept back to Peggy Noonan’s opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday.

Like so many of us, Noonan tried to explain or analyze what just happened in our country, what the events of Sandy Hook Elementary really mean. She commented on how people across the US are not following the story and its every detail like they have in the past. “Too depressing,” she quotes their explanation for tuning out. “Because it’s too painful now, because they’re not sure anything can be done to turn it around and make better the era we’re in. This new fatalism is… well, new. And I understand it, but there’s something so defeated in turning away, in not listening to or hearing the stories of the parents and the responders and the teachers.” There have been a lot of Facebook posts and Twitter tweets talking about the impact of our nation turning its face away from God, suggesting somehow that because we’ve asked people to refrain from public prayer, public displays of religion, and the public teaching of biblical morality, we’ve turned God out and invited in the devil at the worst or at least a grey no-man’s-land of political correctness and individual morality that has actually created a moral abyss. This national sense of despair Noonan is sensing may in fact be because we, in turning away from God, have become hopeless. As she suggests, our nightmares are coming true and the optimism, hopefulness, and perpetual innocence of our grandparents is being shaken by current events. Where do we turn to for hope if we’ve asked God to leave?

Yet, here I was with over 2000 people, packed into Severance Hall, standing for the Hallelujah Chorus. Was this a moment like the one in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation where Grandma Bethany who, when asked to offer a blessing over the Christmas Eve feast, recited the Pledge of Allegiance? Did they stand because it is a tradition that has little meaning but that is followed to the letter simply for traditions’ sake? Or were the people standing in awe of the one King of Kings and Lord of Lords? Was this a midwestern phenomenon? Would such concerts be played this season at Radio City Music Hall, Carnegie Hall, or in any other of the big concert halls of our country? Or was this a prime example of President Obama’s statement about the Midwesterners who tend to cling to their guns and their religion (well, maybe not guns, although since Ohio is a conceal-carry state, perhaps there were a few guns in the audience)?

Fleetingly, I marveled at the freedom of the moment. After reading Noonan’s piece in the Wall Street Journal, I had glanced at a headline of another opinion piece. “The Most Persecuted Religion” written by Abraham Cooper, John Huffman, and Yitzchok Adlerstein, claims that of the 193 nations on our planet, 131 nations harbor either individual groups or governments that are openly hostile to Christianity and its believers. The article discusses how there are groups in places like Nigeria who are practicing Nazi pogrom style selection, singling out Christian people for slaughter. It reminded me of a speaker I once heard who told of a meeting with a Chinese lady. This American had worked closely with the woman for years on psychological studies. Neither had ever publicly acknowledged the other as a fellow believer for fear of repercussions. But during their first meeting in the United States, the two were able to embrace moving the woman to tears. Why? Because she was so happy to be with a fellow believer, safely. And here I was, at a public concert, quite openly celebrating Christ. Hallelujah!

The concert closed with Silent Night. The stage was bathed in candlelight and the twinkle of strands of Christmas tree lights hanging from the ceiling. Robert Porko, who directed the orchestra and chorus for this concert, asked the audience to ponder the recent current events as they listened to the words and sang along to this beloved hymn. He had previously joked with Santa about the Fiscal Cliff and the Debt Ceiling, about repealing Santa Care (which stood for unlimited cookies for life), and about the ever-bumbling Browns football team. Porko added Newtown to that list of things to ponder. Like Noonan, it seemed he sensed a national need in the midst of crisis after crisis to return to the one who offers unlimited hope. And then, in the third stanza, it hit me. Silent Night, holy night; Son of God, Love’s Pure Light; Radiant Beams from Thy Holy Face; With the dawn of Redeeming Grace; Jesus, Lord, at Thy Birth; Jesus, Lord at Thy Birth.

Redeeming Grace, the grace that is redemptive, the way we should treat each other. This is a great big God saying, “Hey, you bunch of screw-ups, I love you and I’m going to save you.” This is joy beyond measure translated into handling each other with grace, with mercy, with peace. This is holding Christmas in our hearts. This is forgiveness for the little screw-ups and for differences of opinion and for each other’s foibles and tendencies and idiosyncracies. This is hope. Once upon a time, America was viewed as a city upon a hill, set apart, shining holy hopeful light on the valleys below. President Obama recently commented that we are no longer a Christian nation. But what I see happening is that perhaps we don’t quite agree. Perhaps Christmas needs to mean a little bit more to us all, that we are beginning to wake-up from our nebulous gray cloud of moral turpitude, from our politically correct stupor to say, as Noonan put it, quoting Eugene Kennedy, “We are like King Arthur’s knights, entering the forest each day without a cut path, and ‘finding our way through is what we are called to do.’ Here… faith offers not an explanation but the only reliable guide. Jesus said, ‘I am the way.’ That is not a metaphor.”

*******

Through our holiday sales this year, and thanks to you for your amazing support, we at Compassion Tea will be able to offer redeeming grace in the form of life-saving medical care to countless people in Africa. Extending the hand of love, God gave us Jesus. Extending the hand of love, we in turn give care and love to our neighbors in Africa. Hallelujah!

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