As I take a second week off from professional responsibilities and focus on the profound mysteries of the Incarnation and on time with family and friends, I thought it proper to post a second Christmas story of mine, this one from about three years ago. Our sweet Rose, who is the subject of this story, passed away last year, and so this is offered in grateful tribute to an amazing Christian woman. God rest her soul.
Some years ago I told you a Christmas story called “Seeing Through the Snow.” It was about two boys from the South, who knew much more about dirt and rivers and snakes than they did about snow or ice or sleds. The story began in Arkansas and then shifted to the Rocky Mountains, where these boys eventually learned that the magic of snowfall was infinitely greater than anything they could have imagined back home. I suggested this miracle of surpassed hopes as an analogy to Christmas joy— that the fulfillment of the Promise is even greater than the promise of the Promise.
Now that story began with a photograph: my younger brother and me, sitting on concrete steps in front of our house, waiting for the snow, bundled up as if for a month in Antarctica, alongside our never-used Red-flyer sled—while all around us was nothing but dry pavement and brown grass.
This morning, I’d like to show you another picture. This one exists only in my mind’s eye, for in the days of my boyhood in Little Rock, no one took photographs inside Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. Like so many other unwritten rules in that traditional Southern society, this was one that I knew but did not fully understand. In the genteel words of my respected elders, it is just not done. Still, I know the moment as if it were before me in some crinkled but still clear old Polaroid.
We are in this dark and mysterious Cathedral, decked with pine branches and Christmas candles, filled with proper and proud parents, grandparents still prouder and more proper, and a hundred terrified schoolkids dutifully singing the hymns and reciting the lines of the annual Christmas paegant. There are Mary and Joseph, the Shepherds and Wisemen, the angels, including tall Martha Logue with her waist-length golden hair as Gabriel, and there—in the coolest role of all–is me, the Drummer Boy, my snare-drum slung on my hip as stylishly as Little Joe ever slung a pistol.
I look out, squinting through the spotlights, hot and bright as wartime interrogation lamps. And there, in the last pew, way back in the shadows, is a large woman. She is dressed in her Sunday finest, a richly colored purple dress with matching shoes and unmistakably matching hat, with large sparkling earrings and necklace, and a full splash of lipstick. There she is, sitting alone, respectfully her hands folded in her lap– the very essence of Southern manners and style. There is Rose. There she is, proper and purple. And black. Rose was black. So black that, in the evening dim of the Cathedral, all I can see, from way up front, is the purple of her outfit and the white of her smile. But that is enough. Rose is here! She came! I knew she would! Daddy said she probably wouldn’t, Mamma said she wasn’t sure. But I knew… I knew. She promised. And Rose never—never—broke her promises.
This, then, is a story about Christmas promises.
We live in a society whose best and worst qualities are shown up during the holidays—and I do mean “the holidays,” including Thanksgiving, Hannakuh, Advent and Christmas. Now, as to Thanksgiving, what a nice surprise: we get that one right. How remarkable that, even in this culture of materialism and narcissism, we commit an entire weekend to simple gatherings of family and friends to remember that the Good Lord has indeed blessed us. And while my Jewish friends tell me that Hannukah is not a high holiday, yet because it occurs alongside the cultural Christmas season, this festival of lights has become more prominent, and I have no doubt that observant Jews well-celebrate those holy days. This is the power of ancient and rich traditions—something about which most Americans don’t know much.
And then we come to Christmas, or as a friend of mine calls it, Christmas.com. Does it drive anyone else to cuss that the Christmas cards, candles and candy now come out in the stores at Halloween? Didn’t they at least used to wait until Thanksgiving? Well, that’s what happens when we let the children have dessert before dinner. Badly as we celebrate Christmas— chocolate cake ‘til we puke is not a bad analogy—the real problem is that we no longer have dinner. We have forgotten Advent, that season when we wait, in quiet hope, for the promises. Like two boys watching the gray sky for snow, Advent is about waiting. Traditionally, it was to symbolize the time between the Annunciation to Mary that she would become great with child, even the Christ Child, and the fulfillment of that promise at Nativity. But our culture of instant gratification no longer has any patience, no discipline, to wait for such promises. It’s amazing that there are any children born anymore. Who waits nine months? We want it and we want it now. So we do not make time for the Advent promises.
If we did, we would have a chance to ponder the promise. Of course, the obvious question at Advent is: will the Christmas promises come true? Will the soldier boy make it home? Will it snow? Will Rose come?
Now, there is another side to this, another thing to ponder about promises. Why do we make them? Promises are risky things. They lay it on the line. And, of course, they carry a cost: for the promise-giver, there is always a cost…I’ll be home for Christmas… Unto you a child will be born, a Son given… I promise I will be there. Promises always carry a cost.
Which brings me back to Rose.
It was, after all, the early 1960’s in Little Rock. You remember Little Rock: Governor Orville Faubus and Eisenhower federalizing the Arkansas National Guard to escort the Little Rock Nine into the hallways of Central High School through mobs of idiot white trash screaming hateful obscenities? Yeah, that Little Rock. You remember. Well, one little-noted consequence of the slow implementation of Brown v Board of Education was that during the 1960’s, private church schools began to spring up all over the South.
In the case of Trinity Episcopal, in 1957 my family’s Cathedral community welcomed as its new Dean– and the Headmaster of its school-to-be– the Rt Reverend Charles Ashley Higgins. This fascinating man had once been a missionary to the Far East, where at the beginning of WW II he was been held prisoner for a year in the Phillipines. A traditional Southerner, he was richly educated, speaking about 5 languages, two of them ancient. He had once played trumpet in a Les Brown bigband—and he still insisted on personally trumpeting all the key moments in the Christmas pageant. What I remember about him, apart from the trumpet, was that he was very stern. His idea for how to Christianize the children was apparently to scare hell right out of them. I remember the legends about his “spanking board,” and the secret discussions we had about whether it had one or two nails sticking out of it. And it seems, though I did not then realize it, he was a deeply conservative man of terrific ability.
And so Dean Higgins wasted no time in starting his own school, now called The Cathedral School, and fifty years on it is one of the finest elementary and prep schools in the South. I will let others decide– others who are more sure and smug about such things than those of us who lived through them– whether the motivation of Dean Higgins and our parents in starting the school was deep racism, or the simple desire to give their kids a Christian schooling free from the constant and occasionally violent chaos that was desegregation. Rose, being more charitable than most, has since told me that she believes it was the latter.
She must have thought about it, for every day she drove us, an hour round trip to and from our farm way out by the Arkansas River, to that school. At the time I was too young to notice that she never came inside. Rose—we called her our family’s “maid,” though she was so much more than that—would laugh and teach and sing and scold us all the way there and back again, drilling us on our homework and our manners and our catechism. I wonder what this deeply devout Baptist thought about the Episcopal Catechism.
Probably she didn’t ponder it at length, for apart from that hour she had to herself in the car, Rose could not have had much time. As a single mother she raised eight children —I mean apart from the three Clark kids– and in addition as the eldest of six she looked after two of her younger sisters and took care of her elder relatives. She virtually ran the little crosswater town of Maumelle, or at least she carried it on her back, as well as the wood-frame church, all just down the road from our farm. She was one of the early stalwarts of the West County Chapter of the NAACP, and she often would go there to volunteer. And she did all this before seven in the morning, when she would get to our house, or after seven at night when she left. An amazing woman. In fact, I think in all of Little Rock, Rose was the only person who, in talent and energy and intelligence and Christian conviction, could match up with Dean Higgins.
Of course, Rose knew who Dean Higgins was and he knew her. As our family priest and the Dean he was a frequent guest in our home, and Rose was always there on such occasions, tending to everyone’s cuisine and comfort and kids. I recall with great mirth one Christmas dinner when the candles got too close to the centerpiece and flames broke out. I still remember the words of the usually elegant Mrs. Beekie Rogers, one of our guests, as she shouted out to my mother, then in the kitchen: “Betty Jo… Betty Jo… yo-ah haouse is on fi-yah!” We could have all burned up in the time she drawled out that alarm. While she and the other guests fell over each other getting out of the way, only Rose and Dean Higgins and my father had the presence to find the water and linens to put the damn thing out.
So I know they knew each other. But I suspect that Christmas pageant in the Cathedral was the most important meeting they ever had. I’m not even sure I noticed that she was the only black person there. And while I did not see her come in, I suspect Dean Higgins did, from way up on high where he sat, trumpet in hand, right next to Gabriel. Or at least he must have seen all the heads turn, and he would have noticed all the whispering in the pews when she took her seat there at the back of the church. I hardly need say that in those days, even in the midst of our Episcopal piety and Southern hospitality, this was one of the things that was just not done.
But Rose had promised.
I wonder what that promise cost her. What went through her mind in the days and weeks before that night? She would have cut off her hand before she ever embarrassed my parents, so they must have talked about it. And my folks, being neither radicals nor racists, probably left the decision to her. Things being what they were in those days, she may have had a harder time with her own community. “You gonna do what? Girl, you are askin for trouble. Those white folks ain’t gonna let you in that fancy Cathedral…” Or worse: “what you doin puttin on such airs? Who you think you are, woman?”
How high the cost of a promise.
I remember after the pageant was all over, after Silent Night and the final Christmas blessing, after Joy to the World and final Bach postlude, after the players of the pageant had drained out the back of the Cathedral, I ran back inside to see Rose. And there she was, standing alone, as everyone else milled about giving Christmas greetings to one another, with only my parents as her company, the three of them an island cut off from the rest of the Christmas faithful. I ran to hug her and hear her squeal with delight, “You were good, Honey you were SO good…” Then, suddenly, things became eerily quiet, and that sea of Southerners parted as cleanly as the Red Sea for Moses, and through them came Dean Higgins, slowly but purposefully making his way toward the four of us– all eyes on him. As he approached us, Rose ever so slightly tensed her grip on my shoulder. I think that was the first I knew that something was up. And I’m sure I was the only one in the whole place who was not surprised as he boomed out in his big baritone drawl, “Jim, Betty Jo, Merry Christmas. And Rose…Merry Christmas. Welcome. How good of you to come.”
The cynics dismiss Christmas as that time when we ignore the harsh realities of life and turn to a make believe world of miracles and goodwill. I suggest that the truth is exactly opposite: that at Christmas, for one brief shattering moment—or hour or day or Twelve Days—a blinding beam of Light breaks into this dark and shadowy world and shows us what is real. And what is real is this: that the God of the Universe is pure love, and that the Divine has broken through our barriers to come in love and dwell with us, who are broken and alone. The theologians call this the Incarnation, and it is as surprising and profound as a Southern vicar walking through a confused crowd to come and welcome a frightened outsider who has broken all the rules. God Himself comes to be among us. This is the great and costly Promise of all the Scriptures and prophets and sages.
One such modern prophet said, “I’ve been to the Mountaintop and I’ve seen the Promised Land, where one day my little children will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” And we saw the cost of that promise.
History, indeed, is full of costly promises– the founders pledging their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor” to those self-evident truths in the Declaration of Independence; Lincoln’s promise to save the Union; Churchill’s vow of “blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
Literature also knows the cost of a promise.
“I will bear the ring to Mordor,” said Frodo, “though it is far and I do not know the way…” Atticus Finch: “Yes, Judge, I will stand with Tom Robinson.” Huck Finn: “Alright, then, I’ll go to hell….”
For the salesman who travels all night to get home by Christmas…because he promised. For the marine who takes fire to stay with a fallen buddy because he promised. For the wife who stays by her failing husband day after day… because she promised.
How high the cost…
And yet at Christmas, from these thorny promises roses bloom! The promises are redeemed! Don’t you see? The greater the cost the greater the joy! This is what all the old Christmas carols, poems and legends are saying. This is what Isaiah has been straining to make us see: every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill brought low— and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has promised it!
The miracle of Christmas is that as we have waited in faith for the costly Advent promises, so in equal measure shall be our joy when they are completed.
When the children see the father come through the door…
When two Southern boys watch the snow finally fall…
When a little drummer boy sees that Rose is here!
How great the joy. How great the joy!