I learned to love Jesus at Christmas-time. I mean the kind of loving where your heart dances right over some of its beats. Where you become the sort of fool who sings in the grocery store and the parking lot on just ordinary days because you don’t know what to do with all that happiness.
This was three years ago and it wasn’t like beforehand I wasn’t trying. But there’s a difference, says an uncle of mine, between loving Jesus and loving the idea of loving Jesus. And when I heard it, I was a little uneasy, a little afraid that was me. Because in the US of A it’s not hard to spend all your days with a label on your forehead that doesn’t match your labor and your living. It’s not hard to take possession of the form of godliness and forget about the fire altogether.
2011 was the year of weighty drought and the summer that droned into November. Come December, I was low and just getting through my checklist. One grey day I heard a sappy song I’d heard every other year, and suddenly it made me hungry and grieved because “Baby Jesu,” says the little drummer boy, “I am a poor boy too.” And,
I have no gift to bring
that’s fit to give a king.
I felt I was hearing a deeper lament than I could comprehend, a cry of deficiency welling up from an encounter with a glory I didn’t know about. I didn’t know what it was to be all wrapped up in this intense need to have something to give. And to be blocked out of this understanding was like being a homeless tramp locked out of a house full of lights and supper-steam and packages. I didn’t know about this kind of love.
Then, a few hours later, I did.
I had a late night writing a column and packing suitcases for the Christmas trip kicking off in the morning. When I fell into bed, it was already tomorrow and only a few sleeping-hours were left – but in those hours, how many things changed!
Because in a dream I was on my knees at the feet of the Desire of Nations, and time was utterly still and I wanted to never move an inch through all the eons ahead of us. Also, there was something else I hadn’t expected – there was this crying need to have something worth offering, to be something worth offering. And I wasn’t.
The words of the prophet seemed suddenly sensible:
Woe is me, for I am undone!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King,
The Lord of hosts.
You can’t explain this agony of insufficiency to the unacquainted, just as no one could ever explain it to me but my own two eyes. You can’t explain how it’s at one time brilliant and terrifying, woeful and wildly glad, how when you meet the Pearl at the heart of the planet and it’s everything you are not, you’re at once so reassured and so regretful that you can’t be sure if you should laugh or cry.
When I woke out of this moment and was startled into my own humdrum house, the first thing to come was bleak disappointment. “Just lost when I was saved!” says Emily Dickinson of this kind of waking:
Just felt the world go by!
Just girt me for the onset with eternity,
When breath blew back,
And on the other side
I heard recede the disappointed tide!
Afterwards, though, something else came – relief that there was time still left, days unwritten that could be sunk into the pursuit of a gift I wouldn’t be ashamed to pull out at the manger.
so to honor him
when we come
This is the hallmark of love – that it changes things because it changes us.
This year, in memory of this awakening of adoration, I put together a little poem, which if you read it I hope will drive you to remember the highest place of homage in your history — and get back to it as fast as you can.
THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY
I am a poor boy too, I said
my knuckles are gnawed and split
but the black sky is split with song and I
can’t keep from hearing it.
No, to the keepers of the sheep,
go on your merry way,
if I should see the baby, I
should never know what to say.
If I should see the baby and
his hair should be full of light,
I should go poorer than I came,
back to the ceaseless night.
I should go smitten with poverty,
– I who was never full –
emptied because found empty
in the face of the beautiful.
What if I sit at the cradle and
gnaw on my knuckles and weep?
Weep for the emptiness of my hands,
the hours, the waste and the sleep?
Over the hills and far away,
how can I block out the bells?
They are threading the paths like rivers
and the ribbon of music swells.
Suppose I should creep to the manger,
put my knees in the dirt for awhile,
and suppose the baby should look at me
and suppose the baby should smile