Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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The World’s Greatest Ornament
The subject line of his email was “The World’s Greatest Ornament.” The Christmas decoration was prominently displayed in the picture my son Andrew sent me this week of the Christmas tree he and Chrissy put up in their newly purchased home in Philadelphia. The ornament is an old one, made by me nearly sixty years ago in an elementary school class project. Anyone wondering why I didn’t become an artist need not look beyond this artifact! The ornament consists of a bright silver disc with a red and green piece of metallic wrapping paper glued in the center. A generous assessment would be to describe it as “primitive.”
Passed on to me by my mother, for years the World’s Greatest Ornament was the center of an annual Christmas ritual. I would carefully remove it from the box of ornaments and place it front and center on the tree, inviting my sons to pause and admire it. Soon Andrew, or his brother David, scoffing at this sad bit of childhood craft work, would move it to the back of the tree. Later, I would return it to its place of honor, and so it would go. No ornament journeyed more than this one during the Christmas season.
A few years ago personal transitions disrupted our family traditions, putting an end to our annual dance around the tree with my ornament. Amid the pains and betrayals of divorce much is scattered and lost, including possessions divided up, given away, or simply discarded for lack of storage space in newly downsized homes. Each Christmas I wondered what had happened to my ornament, assuming it had probably been tossed, not even worth the effort of putting out for a yard sale where, absent its attached memories, it was essentially worthless. But here it was! Rescued by an undeserved kindness and passed on to recall cherished memories of a retreating past even as new, equally precious traditions arrive on the scene for my sons and for me.
Irrational as it may be, we tend to make a particular Christmas season in our lives the iconic one. And then, amid the inevitable change and challenge, diminishment and disappointment of life we struggle vainly to recreate that season or live lamenting its loss. As the author of the beloved carol puts it, “our mid-winters grow bleak, frosty winds moan, earth stands hard as iron, water like a stone.”
It is to lives such as this that Advent speaks most powerfully. Great light for a people who walked in darkness. Ransom for captive Israel, mourning in lonely exile. Dawn breaking upon us. Comfort for those whose hearts are shrouded, mourning under sorrow’s load. The haunting phrases of Advent’s texts and hymns remind us that the gift is not for those who are filled and merry, but for those who are hungry and who wait.
The restoration of the World’s Greatest Ornament to its place of honor on a Thomas family tree will not change the altered circumstances of our family’s life. Nor will it recreate the magical Christmas my brother and I got our Lionel train set or the Christmases when Andrew and David raced from bed to see what was wrapped up under the humble handmade decoration in our homes in Pennsylvania or Ohio. What it can signify is that the Promise endures, transcending the inevitable ebb and flow of life, even the hopes and fears of all the years. That amid the calamities of life that fall upon us, or that we create for ourselves – the withering grass or the fading flower as Isaiah puts it – the Word of God endures forever.
I wrote Andrew back to thank him for this gift. I like to think now that the picture has been taken, the World’s Greatest Ornament has been returned to its familiar place at the back of the tree. Perhaps it finds it comforting to be somewhat protected from the curious paws of Andrew’s cats with whom it must now share this new dispensation.
John H. Thomas
December 19, 2013