Today is Christmas Day, and at this time of year, I am reminded of one of the more powerful experiences that I have had in my life.
Ten years ago, I was a chaplain at a Catholic hospital. I was a student completing my first unit of education, and prior to late November, I had never been required to attend a morning rounds meeting. I forget exactly what happened, but for some reason, I was asked to go.
At morning rounds, all of the chaplains in the hospital sat around a large table in our meeting room and talked about the needs of the day - the needs in the hospital, personal needs that we might know of. They would design a plan for the day and make sure everyone knew roughly how the day would shape out.
Of course, being chaplains, our meetings always closed in prayer. Someone would volunteer or be called upon to pray, and they would make sure to pray for the needs expressed during the meeting and whatever else might be on their heart.
On the particular December morning that I remember most vividly, my supervisor started to pray. But no, she wasn't praying; she was singing.
O come, o come, Emmanuel.
And ransom captive Israel.
Slowly, quietly, the room filled with music as everyone else started to sing along in prayer. You could feel the expectancy in the room, the honest yearning, the confident hope. Everyone in that room wanted Emmanuel to come. More than wanting it, they knew He was coming.
The thing is...I didn't know the words.
I had never heard that song before in my life, even after being in church for 13 years. I couldn't sing with them; I couldn't even hum along. All I could do was sit there and listen to the soft, beautiful, unpretentious music wash over me. Everyone was singing; no one was performing. Everyone was praying.
And I was just being carried along by their prayer into a season of expectant stillness.
To this day, I remember that morning with deep fondness. To me, that morning demonstrates what Christmas is all about.
Christmas...is for outsiders.
Yes, Israel had been waiting for Jesus for thousands of years. They'd been waiting through 400 years of silence. They knew what this little baby meant. They understood the promise.
But so many others didn't. So many others in the world had no idea what was happening in Bethlehem or how it would impact their lives. So many didn't know that hope was born in flesh, that grace was crying in a manger somewhere. Maybe they saw the star, maybe they didn't. If they did, they didn't understand it. But something was happening that morning, and it would come to draw everyone into that expectant stillness.
You can hear it in the hushed whispers that go through the crowds as Jesus is approaching. You can hear it in the not-so-idle chatter as the women knead the dough for bread. You can hear it in the synagogue when a little boy stands up and volunteers to read from the scroll.
All throughout the world, there are these echoes of Jesus, and the world hears them nowhere better than at Christmas. So much so that even those who don't know the words can't help but be carried along by our song. By our prayer. By our hope. By our joy.
Christmas is for Christians, sure. But it's also for outsiders. Jesus is the promise of Israel, but He is the hope of the world. He's for everyone.
Even those who can't sing, or even hum, along right now. They can still have a holy experience.
That's what Christmas is about.
O come, O come, Emmanuel.
*I have since learned the words to this song, and it is one of my favorites. Probably because of this story. It always takes me back to that room and sends that tingly feeling all over me all over again.