Joseph Avenue Christmas is the story of one man's journey to the true meaning of Christmas. Not just the birth of the babe, but the salvation of the soul. Set on the wintry streets of Rochester, NY it is a visit to the heart of that city and the hearts of some of its best and bravest people. From their good example, and the simple lessons of their own lives and faith, a troubled man finds on a dark Christmas Eve an escape from an increasingly failed life.
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I thought yesterday in church of labors done in the dark of the night. Of great victories claimed while others slept.
Of how the most pivotal struggles are often fought alone, the world oblivious to their raging, even when the world itself seems to be at stake.
Like at Fort McHenry.
It was the closing song at church. “The Star Spangled Banner.” We sing it every year and I hear it every day but yesterday I listened. I’ve known the story since I was a child but maybe never quite gotten the point.
Some lawyer guy who’s gone out in a boat to secure the release of his friend, an American POW held by the British on one of their warships in the bay. There’s a fight going on to crush the Americans at Fort McHenry and the Brits hold the lawyer and his friend overnight to protect them from the battle.
That’s what he wrote the song about.
He asks and answers a question: Did the American flag make it through the night?
Did the American defense of Fort McHenry hold out?
They don’t answer that question at ballgames. Or virtually anyplace else our anthem is played. They leave that to the typically unsung second verse, which includes the lines:
“What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep, as it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
“Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam, in full glory reflected now shines on the stream.
“Tis the star spangled banner! Oh long may it wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”
The flag made it. The battle was won. A guy wrote a song. And we remember his name.
But the hard part was keeping the flag up. While the bombs were bursting in air and the rockets were giving their red glare, there were soldiers in Fort McHenry fighting and dying. The only reason Francis Scott Key saw that flag in the dawn’s early light is because men bled and sacrificed to keep the enemy from taking it down.
The real point of our national anthem is not what Key saw from the deck of his ship, but what those soldiers did and endured to defend Fort McHenry.
The gift was the flag, still flying triumphant, but it was purchased at great cost in the dark of the night by men who did not shirk.
Then it was Sunday school and the trip to Gethsemane.
There had been the Last Supper and the bread and the wine and the washing of the feet. And Jesus, heavy and sorrowful, went up to the Mount of Olives, his disciples following, and, taking just three, went into the Garden of Gethsemane.
And those three he eventually left behind as he knelt and lowered his face to the ground and shuddered under the burden upon him, the burden of a creation’s sin, a burden he had to bear alone.
Some inscrutable process had begun, the Atonement, and the only person who had never sinned had to pay the price for everyone who had.
He begged for it to pass, though willing to accept it if it couldn’t, and the agony was so bad he sweat blood. His only company and comfort was an angel from the presence of God.
It was torturous. And it wouldn’t completely end until the next afternoon, when he would be dead and pierced on a cross in Jerusalem. But that night he fought, and there were no poets looking on, just three fishermen a little ways away, asleep through his pain.
Asleep. Like all the world. Oblivious to what was happening or what it meant.
But he fought through the night. And gave us life. And three days later, by the dawn’s early light, he unfurled the banner of salvation.
Maybe the comparison is a stretch, or maybe it’s not. And maybe the point is nothing more than gratitude and awe.
We couldn’t help at Fort McHenry, and we couldn’t help in Gethsemane. But we can remember, and be appreciative.
And if it ever falls to us to fight through the night, to labor for good in an oblivious world, then perhaps we can take satisfaction in knowing that we are following in heroic and hallowed footsteps.