New International Version Isaiah 9:6
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6
I love the words of Isaiah 9:6. It reminds me of watching choirs singing Handel’s Messiah. I’ve watched it live a number of times over the years, and seen that wonderful verse from Isaiah put into song. As a young teenager I remember driving with my grandparents for an hour and a half in the sweaty Queensland heat to see it performed in the luxury of the air conditioned theatre in Brisbane. I saw it again in New York, fighting crowds of tourists to get to our seats in a sold out performance at Carnegie Hall. Another time was walking through the -40 degree cold trying desperately not to slip over in the snow to watch a town choir of local Inuit, Dene Indian and white people in a small city in northern Canada put on the performance. No matter where I was in the world, I always thought while watching and listening to the performance that it sounded so close to angels singing. It sounded like a touch of heaven on earth.
Part of the reason Handel’s work continues to endure after 250 years is that it gives voice not simply about the Divine, but about humanity’s response to the Divine. It’s Scripture to music which helps us receive a greater understanding of God, ourselves and of our relationship towards Him and others. For a moment it speaks of something we longed for.
Around 2000 years ago, the very Messiah that Handel was honouring in his incredible composition, uttered his first infant cries into a dark universe giving all of humanity this very ‘thing’ that they could reach for – the thing they longed for.
As human beings our fundamental longings haven’t changed all that much in 2000 years. These days we long for the same thing as the tired shepherds working the late shift in the Bethlehem countryside when an obscure couple from Nazareth welcomed a son in to the world. We long for hope, permanency, worth, forgiveness, safety, security, understanding and love on an eternal scale. We long for something that almost can’t be put into words.
The author C.S. Lewis famously sums up these feelings of living within a beautiful but often broken world:
“Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.”
“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” – C.S. Lewis “Mere Christianity”
So what is it we are looking for? And how does that day 2000 years ago speak to reality in my life today? Is Christmas time merely a superficial cheer and joy where we temporarily put aside the worries and weariness of the day to day? Or does Christmas speak of a joy we are meant to walk in perpetually? The Scripture passage from Isaiah talks of a heaven on earth ruled by a wonderful counsellor, by a prince of peace.
If we were to look around at the state of things, even the most gifted optimist would have to acknowledge that good counsel, peace and heaven on earth is sorely needed but often lacking. Working for a charity like Anglicare, and providing the services that our staff do to those in our communities, we have a first-hand look at both the lack of heaven on earth and the glimpse of heaven being delivered.
One of Anglicare’s biggest portfolios is Out of Home Care, or foster care. Our Anglicare service looks after over 400 young people in care. One young girl in care was interviewed recently and described what Christmas meant to her: During their first year in her foster carers home, the child said ‘I don’t like Christmas. You wish for things and they never come.’ The child was, of course, referring to being reunited with her biological family.
Last year Anglicare assisted over 7,000 people across the ACT and large parts of regional South and Western NSW providing them with emergency relief, mainly in the form of food. There is often a spike in requests for food over Christmas and St John’s Care alone gave away over 200 Christmas food hampers last year. It’s hard to look this sort of Christmas reality in the face knowing that for many vulnerable individuals and families this is one of the hardest and saddest times of the year. Surely we can do more than a cursory nod before we dip into the shortbread and mince pies.
Christmas can have the tragic effect of perpetuating further heartache and isolation for the vulnerable in our community who struggle to afford the very basics throughout the year let alone at Christmas. The very ones whom Christ urges us to lavish the most protection on are the ones whose issues like isolation, age, sickness and broken families are amplified at this time of year.
Bringing heaven to earth means recognition that we must place this value on and see with new eyes the worth of those around us. It also means that if Christ places this value on every person, then Christmas is a time to remember afresh that we must place the same worth on ourselves. It’s a worth that doesn’t fade with age, or poor decisions, or painful circumstances, or our mistakes or heartaches. It’s a worth that beautifully endures because God loves us and has placed this worth on us. Author Elisabeth Elliot says, every day “we rub shoulders with other eternal souls.”
Earlier this week I had the privilege of interviewing Zack Bryers, a youth worker from one of our partner services at St John’s Care. Zack is the ACT’s Young Australian of the Year. He told me his story of fatherlessness, homelessness, lack of schooling, unemployment and other struggles. Today he assists over 80 young people each year as Canberra’s first fulltime youth support worker. In listening to him speak I was impressed with his tenacity, his commitment to the young people he works with, and to his own family -his wife and two young daughters. In the work he does, I can see a touch of heaven on earth.
Zack got off the street because a friend he now calls his big sister, took a chance on him and allowed him to live in her home. I don’t know this woman’s name, but as I sat in the little office at St John’s Care earlier this week, I kept thinking how different this young man’s life would be (and how different the lives of those he now works with would be), if this woman hadn’t taken him in and, in that act of kindness, shown him his worth.
I have this same feeling when I see volunteers collecting food, or encouraging a family in need, or a foster carer not giving up on a child.
The beauty for me is in seeing that each of us are connected, each of us are valuable and each of us has God-given gifts, talents, passions and abilities that can be used to bless the world.
While Christmas is a reminder of God allowing heaven to touch earth in a tangible and ultimate expression of his incredible love for us through his Son, it’s lessons are not thrown aside after 25 December and do not last with the just the fleeting intensity of a Handel’s Messiah performance at Carnegie Hall. Seeing and behaving as the eternal beings we are should be a lifestyle for us. We should live every day in the knowledge of Christ’s love for us every day whether it looks glamorous or not. We must choose to move the message of Christmas from the place of simply being a nice story, to a powerful Divine reminder that, indeed, each of us was made for more than this.
The message of Christ, when lived out in its truest form, is one of inclusion – incidentally one of Anglicare’s core values. Your age, your gender, your background, your bank account balance, your past, your heartache, your education level, does not detract from your inherent Christ-given worth. We must make the choice to view ourselves with the same compassion and acceptance as Christ views us. We must also make that choice in every interaction we have with another person. We want them to leave our presence better because of that interaction, having recognised their worth.
Let us look for heaven touching earth every day in the big things and in the small – in what we choose to focus on and what we choose to do for others. In doing so, the words of Christmas which can so easily become cliché are reinstated with their full authority, and we can say, with hope and assurance “Joy to the world”.
-Amy Lanham (Senior Manager, Marketing and Communications)