St. John never wrote a birth story. Instead he celebrates God becoming human by singing the first Christmas carol. His song claims that this birth overcomes the darkness of this world and enables us to become children of God. Repeatedly, he says it makes available grace upon grace. In many ways grace is Christianity’s gift to the world.
“Grace” like a diamond has many sides to it. It describes first divine assistance, God’s gift, God’s mercy, but it also describes what happens to the person who receives the gift. Graceful people are kind, thankful, charming, pleasing. The law that Moses gives might enable people to be healthy and live in peace with others, but Jesus’ grace also makes them attractive and even beautiful.
One of the most grace- filled people in my life was my Aunt Ann. Her whole life was lived expressing thanksgiving for the gifts granted her, and she made clear we were among the most precious of those gifts. She helped us understand all life is a gift in which we receive far more than we can ever give.
I remember one difficult moment in our relationship that taught me my first lesson in the mystery and power of grace. I was very young, maybe twelve years old when my father announced we were going to the Sunbury High School Christmas Concert with Aunt Ann. I suspect we were taking Ann, because my Uncle Dan would not. My Uncle Dan seldom left their house.
I was not very comfortable about being in public with Aunt Ann right then. Although she was a very beautiful woman, she had recently developed some sort of disfiguring disease. It had twisted her mouth and the entire right side of her face to one side. I was struggling as a twelve year old to understand why a good person would be punished, and especially why God would choose such a punishment, to make a beautiful person ugly. I wondered why she would ever leave the house. And I thought it was very brave for us to appear with her where most of Sunbury would see us.
Nevertheless, we dressed up, walked to Aunt Ann’s and then on to the Sunbury Senior High School Gymnasium that looked and smelled like basketball. Up on the stage Katherine Reed stood before the chorus and down in front Charles Coleman tuned the orchestra.
I cannot remember that the concert impressed me a great deal until right before the last selection. Miss Reed went to the microphone and spoke,” This is the moment for which we have all been waiting. Anyone who wants to sing along is invited to come up on the stage,” “What is this? We’re here to watch other people perform, not to make fools of ourselves.”
Then I realized that Aunt Ann had left the seat beside me and was walking up the aisle. “How could she do that to me? Everyone is going to see her twisted face.” As she walked forward, other people joined her. There were some of my other aunts. My father had eleven brothers and sisters. There was the pharmacist from the Rea and Derrick, and the cashier at Weis’, and the very weird man who lived at the end of Fairmount Avenue. Half the audience seemed headed for the stage. My father and mother stayed with my brother and me. Pop loved to sing at home, but would never think of doing it here. He could not read music.
The motley crowd crowded on the risers and poured off to the sides, shaking hands, laughing. Miss Reed tapped the podium. Everyone became very serious. She raised her baton, the orchestra played, and they began to sing.
“Hallelujah, Hallelujah…Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah. Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.” And the basses came in, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And he shall reign forever and ever.”
What was going on here? These were ordinary people singing away as if they knew what they were doing. I realized alongside me my father was singing, even though he could not read music. “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” And he was not even a very religious man. Then as I watched the grace-filled moment happened. As my Aunt Ann sang her heart out, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords,” the twist left her face. I saw her as she used to be, and as she will be: beautiful.
As far as I can recall, that is the first time I was confronted with the wonderful power and mystery of grace. When I grew up I understood she had Bells Palsy. It went away after several months. Later I discovered disabilities often disappear temporarily when people sing or dance, garden or worship, when praising God together. But to this day, the mystery of that night remains. Thank God!
The Christian quality of grace is contagious. We become loving people, because we are loved. We become forgiving people, because we are forgiven. We become good people, because we are treated as if we were good people.
I saw that at Camp Beisler which your pastor, Michael, directed before coming here. Beisler is a lot different than Nawakwa and Kirkenwald. Most of the campers are very poor inner city kids. For three weeks they are joined by autistic children. Michael’s counselors became my heroes as I watched them give all of themselves to serve. I saw them use Moses’ law as they worked with autistic kids who are so turned in on themselves they can hardly function in society. It was common to see two counselors grab a child acting out, throw him to the ground, and hold him tightly until he quit. I soon discovered that was only the law used to control inappropriate behavior.
Counselors taught autistic children with Jesus’ grace. I was lying in a canoe quietly fishing across the lake when here they came down the hillside, going for a swim. ” Oh brother,” I thought. ” This should be good, teaching autistic kids to swim.” Words travel very easily across water. This is what I heard, ” Good work, John. Wonderful Mary. Go on, go on. You can do it. You can do it. That was magnificent. You are beautiful Harry. You are beautiful.” Only good news. God knows you teach an autistic society how to swim in the same way. ” God loves you. You are precious.”
Grace is the gift that overcomes the impossible, a gift from God that enables us to that allows us to live in joy even when our lives remains twisted beyond our control. Grace is the gift that confers the faith, hope, and love we all need. It makes us kind. Grace is song that God directs, a song in which Jesus sings the lead part, the angels lend their voices, and all the rest of us are invited to join in, one at a time, until the whole world sings a song of peace.