A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices

by Tom Albright, Ripple Allentown

Christmas Eve, and Allentown has had its 4th murder in a week. What are people thinking? Is it about money? Passion? Retribution? Evil? Fear? Lack of choices?

It is a hard week full of the usual busyness and expectations that accompany the holiday. Where is the Christmas spirit? Where is the hope? I found myself awake at 3am again. It is not fear, but sadness, futility, and concern.

Then an idea–what if we spent Christmas Eve at the site of the double murder six blocks from our home? What would it be like to light candles and sing carols in the darkness of the alleyway where the shotgun had rung out and the car had run over bodies only a few days before? The thought would not leave me.

Christmas Eve morning I decided to walk and pray as I visited the sobering locations of the recent violence. It was cold and windy and I forgot the address of the first death. I walked up and down the street and realized that God knows.

But where are you, God–why do you not act?

The sun was shining when I started but as I walked the clouds increased and it became colder. I tried greeting people on the street by smiling and saying, “Merry Christmas,” but my heart was not in it. I wandered around past the site of the stabbing, and headed toward the site where a young couple was murdered.

I passed am old Lutheran church that reaches out to the homeless through meals, an overnight shelter, and a parish nurse, and I saw a small sign advertising their Christmas Eve service at 10:30 that evening. I found the house and walked half a block with a lady pulling her laundry cart. I asked if she heard about the killings.  “Of course,” she said.  “My husband woke up and heard the shots–I heard when they got run over by the car. I wanted to get out. This kind of thing shouldn’t be happening. The murdered woman was a crossing guard for the kids.”

The neighbor and I stood between the three memorials that had been created. About thirty tall glass candles covered with pictures of Mary, Jesus, and Saint Michael had all been extinguished by heavy rain. There must have been twenty-four colorful silk tulips laid beside the candles.

I got on my knees in front of the candles and prayed. It felt hard and cold and vulnerable. I thought of the carol,  I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

I got up off the damp concrete and left with a plan. That evening, my family went to the church’s Christmas Eve service. We sang the carols, heard the Christmas story, received communion, and left the sanctuary at a few minutes past midnight Christmas morning, while the organ played the “Hallelujah Chorus.”  We drove around the block, taking our candles from the church service to light as many of the tall candles as we could – pouring the water off, shielding our small flames from the wind. Together we lit over two dozen candles.

And now there was light.

Then we laid a wreath of fragrant cedar boughs and prayed for the family, for the couple’s little girl, for the community, for justice and peace, for education, for new ways of handling disputes, for safety, restoration, and for hope in Jesus when all hope seems lost. We sang:

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining;
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.

A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!

Looking back at the candles, up at the stars, and at the lights on the windows around us – I was shaking with cold. We wondered how many people might be watching and if the police might be called. As one young man walked towards us down the windy street I felt tired, hopeful, and overwhelmed by it all.

Maybe that is what we need, someone to show us our weary souls and their true worth, and to rejoice on this night of our Savior’s birth–and every night.

I realized how little I truly understood of the pain, hopes, and fears of this place where I live. But I have fallen on my knees and perhaps heard a faint sound of the angels’ voices. I have seen a bit of the manger – that rough, earthy feeding trough where God was laid, so vulnerable out on the streets.  God was there and is there on the streets of Allentown on that Holy Night . . . and tonight.

[Join the Ripple community at 3:15pm on Sunday, January 8, 2012, for prayer and candlelighting at the Peace Pole in Allentown, followed by activities at the church.]