Hark is a word we sometimes find in hymns and this time of year it usually shows up in a pre-Christmas rendering of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” played as seasonal background music in stores and the like. Hark or to harken means to listen, hear, attend, heed or mind. It commands attention to something—like angels or a warning of danger. It’s a good word to use in Advent because it involves using yet another sense to capture what this season is about. We smell the evergreens and the cookies baking, taste the goodies offered in hospitality, see the candles and colors that mark the season and put the barrenness outside aside for the moment, and we feel the shapes and textures of the figures we set up in the crèche. “Hark!” brings our ears into the season. Do you hear the ringing of the bells at the red kettles? Is it a reminder that others are not so fortunate as we are and does it encourage us to drop in some coins or perhaps a few bills to help others? Do we listen to the sounds of children’s tantrums in the store when told they cannot have another toy until Santa comes, or can we stretch a bit further and hear the pitiful wails of a child who hasn’t had enough to eat? We hear charitable appeals quite often during the holidays, but do we hear what is behind those appeals? Do we pay attention to the message? Maybe we need to say “Hark!” a few times to remind us that part of our job as Christians celebrating Advent is to bring hope to others as the message of the coming Christ child brings hope to us.
At this time of year we seem to see more haloes than usual. Christmas cards show Mary, Joseph and the baby, all sporting haloes around their heads. Gabriel often is shown with one as he announces God’s message to Mary. Angels wear them to show their holy state and images of saints wear them for the same reason. And then there are invisible haloes, worn by some we might never expect. Have you ever heard someone say of someone else, “Oh, he/she is a saint”? Why do they say that? Is the person particularly holy? Do they pray a lot, carry a Bible with them everywhere and are seen reading it? What about those who quietly go about doing the work of the kingdom that Jesus came to teach us about? They might not say a word or even look particularly saintly, but I know more than a few people who I think qualify for a halo just because of who they are and what they contribute to this world. They don’t make big gifts or grants to charities although they support them. They don’t separate themselves from the world and live as homeless people or even cloistered religious people. They simply see needs in the world and work to fill those needs without fanfare or even thought of recognition or effusive thanks. It’s the invisible haloes that make Advent a special season, and those haloes don’t stop shining when Christmas Day arrives. Haloes are all-season apparel for those who work to see Jesus in the hungry, the sick, the lonely and the dying.
Herod is a name we hear in association with the Christmas story. Actually, the name Herod was a family one shared by several generations of rulers of Judea. The Herod of whom Matthew and Luke spoke was the father, Herod the Great as he was called, who ruled from 37-4 BCE and who was every bit as mean and nasty as he was portrayed and even worse. To give him a bit of credit, he was a great builder, including several fortresses including Heriodium and Masada, a new aqueduct for Jerusalem, the Antonia fortress which protected the palace and remodeled and expanded the temple. On the bad side, though, his paranoia grew to the point where he suspected everyone, including his beloved wife and several of their children. While there is no archaeological evidence of the Slaughter of the Innocents, as we call the episode that sent Mary, Joseph and Jesus to Egypt, anyone disordered enough to murder his family would certainly react to the story that a baby had been born who would become king.
There’s an old saying that goes, “Home is where you go that they have to take you in,” but then, there’s another that reads, “Home is where the heart is.” During the holidays, the second seems much more appropriate. In movies, long-lost people show up at the door this time of year and usually are welcomed in almost as if they hadn’t been away. Home is where a lot of people want to be this time of year, with family and dear friends, laughing, giving and receiving gifts, sharing great meals and even going to church together. Some, though, are homesick for a place they’ve never been but hope to go someday. For them, home is not just heaven but in heaven.
Imagine it. Knocking the door and having God open it with arms open wide. Now that would be a heavenly home for the holidays, wouldn’t it?