A few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union two American teachers were invited to teach at an orphanage in Moscow. At Christmas they were asked to teach the Christmas story to the children who, under an atheistic regime, had never heard it.
They built a manger scene and then asked the children to draw the gifts they would like to give to the baby Jesus. Then, as the children one by one presented their gifts, they saw one little boy actually climb into the manager and hug the doll that represented Jesus.
He told them that he’d asked Jesus if instead of a gift he could keep him warm, and that Jesus had said that that would be the most wonderful gift of all. And in doing it, that little boy who’d never had anyone to cuddle him, found a friend who would be with him forever.
I heard about a little girl taking part in a Christmas pageant dressed as an angel, being told by her Sunday School teacher to make her appearance by coming down the centre aisle. The little girl’s response was: ‘Do you want me to walk or do you want me to fly?’ It almost made me think she could have flown.
We must never lose the wonder and mystery of Christmas. Every year I’m reminded of those words of the late Peter Marshall: ‘When Christmas doesn’t make your heart swell up until it nearly bursts and fill your eyes with tears and make you all soft and warm inside then you will know that something inside of you is dead.’
Joy is what makes Christmas. Most of us have things that trigger that joy; but whatever they are, they merely point us to that greater joy born again into our souls – God with us.
The famous French novelist, Francois Mauriac, wrote a book entitled Knot of Vipers, in which an old man spent the last thirty years of his life sleeping down the hall from his wife after an argument over their five-year-old daughter. Neither of them was willing to forgive, and in the years that followed, neither of them was willing to take the first step back. Now, every night he waits for her to approach him, but she never appears; while she lies awake waiting for him to approach her, and he never appears.
It is a story of how we become the primary victims of our own unforgiveness and remain bound to the people we cannot forgive. Jesus said that if we refuse to forgive, we’ll never be forgiven. The only thing harder than forgiveness is the alternative.
A gang of thieves once came up with an idea for robbing a jewellery store without anyone being aware of it. They broke into the store but all they did was change the price tags on several items, switching low price tags to certain high value items and vice-versa. Then, next day, when the store opened for business, the thieves went in, singling out a junior member of the sales staff, who was less likely to notice anything was amiss, and made some seemingly legitimate purchases of inexpensive items that were really very valuable. It was several days before the owner of the shop realised what had happened.
That’s a good illustration of what’s happened in our world. Someone has switched the tags and fooled us into believing that temporary pleasures can satisfy the deep inner longings of our souls.
In 2004 Victor Yushchenko standing for president of the Ukraine, was poisoned by the ruling party, who then tampered with the results, declaring on state-run TV that he’d been defeated. However, in a little box in the corner of the screen, the woman providing sign-language translation gave out a different message: ‘They are lying,’ she said. ‘Yushchenko is our president.’ And the deaf community rallied spreading the news and starting the ‘Orange Revolution’ in which a million people wearing orange demanded a new election, and Yushchenko won.
In the same way, human society has always been dominated by powerful vested interests. But quietly, in the corner of the screen, as it were, stands Jesus, who says: ‘Don’t believe them; what profit is there if you gain the whole world and lose your soul.’
Reflecting on those inexpressible longings deep within us, C.S.Lewis once said: ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food… People feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. So, if I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.’
It reminds me of those deeply intuitive words of Saint Augustine, who said of God: You have made us for yourself and our heart is forever restless until it finds its rest in you.’
John D Rockefeller, once the richest man in the world, had three simple rules for anyone who wanted to become rich: go to work early; stay at work late; and find oil. He was also the man who, when asked how much you need to be happy, answered: ‘Just a little bit more.’
But over against that stand the words of the Bible: ‘Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said: ‘Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.’ Being obsessed with making money eventually brings the very opposite of what we want – not contentment; just the guarantee we’ll never find it – like trying to satisfy our thirst by drinking seawater. The Bible says: ‘Give me neither poverty nor riches! Give me just enough to satisfy my needs.’ That’s the key to contentment.
In 1980 Albert J. Lowry’s book, How You Can Become Financially Independent by Investing in Real Estate, became a bestseller. One year later Money magazine estimated Lowry’s net worth at thirty million dollars and called him a ‘real-estate wizard’. But something went wrong, and four years later the Success Development Institute, which promoted Lowry’s theories, collapsed with two and half million dollars in debts and Lowry filed for bankruptcy.
Albert J Lowry is just another reminder of the eventual folly of putting one’s hopes for life in get-rich quick schemes. Even when they seem to work there’s no security in them. His story also reminds us of the ancient wisdom of the Bible that says: ‘It is the blessing of the LORD that makes rich, And He adds no sorrow to it.’
George Orwell, whose classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four so prophetically predicted the nightmare of much of today’s world, also gave a graphic image of the human condition in one of his essays. He talked about a wasp that descended on his plate one day and began sucking jam from a dollop in the corner. Orwell fixed him by cutting him in half with his butter knife, then paid no more attention, going on with his meal while a tiny stream of jam trickled out of the wasp’s severed oesophagus. It was only when the wasp tried to fly away that it realised what had happened to it.
A bit like some people, I suspect, who, severed from their souls, but greedy and unaware, continue to consume life’s sweetness. Only when it’s time to fly away will they gasp their true condition.