The Nativity of the Lord - Christmas
It was Christmas Eve in Nashville, 1956. Judy Charest was just 3 months old. Her father had jumped into the shower, and by the time he stepped back out again his wife and baby girl were gone. His wife suffered from depression, and she had driven their little daughter to the Shelby Street Bridge. With Judy in her arms, she jumped 90 feet down into the icy river below.
Passersby soon noticed a woman floating in the cold water, and they heard her screaming, “My baby! Somebody save my baby!” In the crowd were two men—Jack and Harold—who immediately ran down to the water’s edge. Jack dove in and swam first for the baby. He brought Judy back to shore and handed her off to Harold before diving in the frigid water again to swim for her mother. Harold grasped the little girl tight in his arms and immediately began to run up the riverbank. He’d only gone two or three steps when—to his great delight—he heard the girl give a little grunt. “It’s too good to be true,” he thought to himself. “She’s still alive. It’s a miracle!”
Incredibly, both Judy and her mother survived the ordeal. Actually, because of it, Judy’s mom got the diagnosis and treatment she needed and went on to live a long, full, and otherwise wonderful life.
Judy knew nothing about the story of her first Christmas until she was 21 years old. And when she heard the tale, she suddenly understood why her father held her so very, very tight every year on Christmas. It was only last year, when Judy was 59, that she met Harold: the man whose strong arms had carried her up the riverbank that Christmas Eve. When they met, they hugged—tightly, and for a long time. Just a couple of weeks ago, when they met up again, Judy told Harold that being in his arms—the arms that once saved her—felt so very familiar.
No doubt you’re thinking, “That’s quite a story, Fr. Joe…but it’s not exactly your typical ‘Christmas story.’ There are no elves or reindeer. Nobody exchanges any gifts. While there are a mother and child involved, there’s no manger, no magi.” And yet, when Ifirst heard Judy and Harold’s story a few days ago, I immediately thought, “That’s the truest Christmas story I’ve heard in a long time.”
Why? Because what Harold and Jack did for Judy on her first Christmas is precisely what the Son of God did for you and me the very first Christmas: throwing all caution to the wind, thinking nothing of himself, concerned only with the dangers we faced, he jumped down to earth from heaven to rescue us.
To help us understand this, let’s consider Christmas music for a minute. There is more Christmas music than any other kind. It’s in every language, every style, coming out of every culture. From Bach to Beyoncé, everybody writes and sings songs for Christmas. As I heard on the radio the other day, there are a surprising number of our modern Christmas favorites that have been written by musicians who aren’t even Christian!
Listening to so much of this music the last few weeks, I’ve realized that pretty much all Christmas songs—with rare exceptions—speak about deliveries.
In contemporary Christmas songs, the deliveries are of the sort that come wrapped in shiny paper and bows: deliveries eagerly awaited this very night from a big man in a red suit (or maybe deliveries awaited the last few days from somebody driving a big brown truck). Contemporary Christmas music sings a lot about presents. But Christmas can’t be all about the presents, can it? We give gifts on many other occasions, as well. Why these deliveries?
If you turn back the clock a little to an earlier era, you’ll find that Christmas songs speak of a different delivery: the delivery of a little baby, who’s found lying in a manger. They are sentimental songs that tug on the heartstrings as we hear the story of a child born into some rather difficult circumstances. But babies are born every minute of every day—and far too many of them in less-than-ideal conditions. We don’t celebrate the delivery of every newborn with all this fanfare.
Reach back even farther, and you’ll find some Christmas songs that today are by-and-large forgotten. They, too, sing of deliveries. They sing of how this baby born in Bethlehem grew to manhood, and how he delivered himself into the hands of the wicked, delivered himself to suffering and a Cross, and did so that you and I might be delivered from sin and death. They sing of the God who dove headfirst into our humanity in order to save us. And only here, my friends, do we learn of the delivery that makes any sense of all the others.
The good news the angels announced to the shepherds was the birth of a Savior. But it means nothing for us to call Jesus our Savior, to celebrate our Savior’s birth, if there’s nothing from which we need to be saved. We Christians innately know this. At Baptism, we were literally pulled from the waters: raised up by one who jumped in after us. And I think that’s why, at Christmas, so many Christians who don’t otherwise think themselves very religious, who don’t regularly practice their faith, still feel the pull to come to church. Like when Harold hugged Judy 59 years later, we recognize a very familiar embrace. Deep down, we know we’re most truly at home when held in the arms of our Deliverer. It’s here where life is restored to us. It’s here that we belong.
Two men saved a baby girl 60 years ago. On the first Christmas, a baby boy was born to save all men. Let us rejoice his Most Sacred Heart—at this holy time, and throughout the year—by living the kind of lives for which he risked everything to deliver us.