Pat Conroy’s latest release, My Reading Life, is an engaging blend of biography and bibliography. In it Conroy narrates how books have shaped his life. Words had worked their way deep into his soul long before they started emerging again in his work as a writer.
One of the most poignantly amusing chapters is about his first days as a new student at Beaufort High School. He didn’t know anyone and not a single person bothered to say as much as “hello” on his first day there. He had no idea what to do with himself during the lunch period until he stumbled across the school library – totally empty at that time of day. The books were a refuge for him. He found a copy of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and started reading.
The focal character of this chapter is the school librarian – Miss Hunter. She was mean, dour, inhospitable, and feared by both students and faculty at Beaufort High. When she discovered Conroy in the library during the lunch period she scolded him and accused him of looking for books that had “dirty parts.” When she saw that he was reading Les Miserables she spoke disparagingly of “French authors.” And then she suggested an alternative book by Hugo.
She said to Conroy, “Do you like football?”
“Yes ma’am,” he answered.
At this Miss Hunter went to a shelf and pulled down another volume. She handed Conroy Victor Hugo’s ‘football book’ – The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Here was a woman who worked in a library. She knew where to find the book. And yet she didn’t have a clue as to what the story was really about.
During Advent and Christmas it is possible to sit in a sanctuary and hear a familiar story. We can show up at church and sing songs about that story and listen to sermons on the story. We may even pick up the book and read the story for ourselves.
We can do all of those things and yet miss the real meaning of the story, never clue-in as to what this story is really all about.
Christmas is not about our benevolent disposition to our fellow human beings, as important as that is. It is not about “the children,” as delightful as they may be. It is not about high ideals like peace and joy and giving, although they figure prominently in the drama.
Christmas is about God. This is God’s story. God is the author and God’s glory is the point of what is happening. Christmas is about God entering history – both then and now. At Christmas we affirm the truth of the name Immanuel. God is with us.
When we sing the familiar hymn that invites Christ to “be born in us today,” we’re not singing a mere metaphor. We are declaring what’s real. Jesus lives and is made manifest in this world through his people. God comes near by the power of the Spirit dwelling in us. This means God works through you. It also means that God comes to you.
This Christmas don’t miss the story. In the words “God with us” you find both your calling and your comfort. And the glory goes to God – just as the angels sang.
All glory to you, Almighty God. You are present with us to sustain and comfort; you are working through us to bring good news to all people. May your name be honored and held high today as we worship and gather and celebrate your presence among us – the gift of Immanuel, Jesus our Lord through whom we pray. Amen.