Friday, December 20, 2013

Epiphany: Joy to the World

Joy to the World, a Christmas Story
c2003, Susan Noyes Anderson
All Rights Reserved

Christmas was coming, but not a soul in the small village on the Austrian border could feel it. Last December the children had been singing in the streets; now, not 12 months later, German soldiers were marching in them. Joy was unthinkable that year, and peace and good will seemed no more than shadows of Christmases past. Elusive shadows...and sorely missed.

The occupation lay dark and heavy over the village, creating a blanket of fear and futility that threatened to destroy them. Even at Christmas, there were few candles flickering in the windows. It was, in sad truth, as if the light had deserted them completely––and not just in the homes and the streets, but in their very hearts and countenances. A bleak and dreary Christmas awaited them, for hope was as lost to these people as was their freedom.

Stefan braced himself against the winter chill and, setting his face into the wind, began the long walk home. He and his family lived on the outskirts of the village, and his coat was even more threadbare this year than in previous ones. Of course, it hadn’t mattered so much before...then his heart and been merry and his spirit warm...but tonight he felt the cold so intensely he couldn’t stop shivering. He couldn’t stop thinking either...about how awful it was to have those soldiers inhabiting the church...his church...or at least, he was responsible for it. He was responsible for meeting the spiritual needs of his congregation, and those needs were many. Yet he couldn’t even hold a decent meeting or offer the comfort of a Christmas Eve service. Who would ever have thought these villagers, a close-knit group of men, women, and children, would be forbidden to assemble as a people? It was unimaginable, but then, so was having to nod and smile at the German army. Some of them actually seemed to believe they were welcome. Now, that was unimaginable!

A sigh escaped Stefan’s lips and hung in the air, a cloud of warm vapor that did little to thaw his frozen cheeks. Ah well, at least he’d been able to get the medicine for Wilhelm. Hopefully the infection would heal soon, God willing. Little ones were such a blessing at times like these. Not that Will couldn’t feel his parents’ despair––and it did affect him––but the innocent heart of a child sometimes forgot the threat that enveloped their lives. And sometimes, a child could even help his parents forget. A small but genuine smile played at the corners of Stefan’s mouth as he recalled Will’s antics with the old cowbell his mother had hung, at his request, within reach of his sickbed.

“Okay Will,” she had said. “Only ring it if you really need me; I’m making strudel for the orphans, and we have far too many this year.”

The memory of her words deepened the lines on Stefan’s forehead, but the recollection of Will’s next action smoothed them again.

“Ring. Ring.” His chubby hands pushed the bell to and fro. Naturally, Mother came running.

“What is it, Will?” she asked worriedly.

“I need you,” he answered.

“But what do you need?” she queried.

“Just you,” he replied innocently. She couldn’t help but laugh a little and squeeze his cheek.

“I love you, Will. And I’ll be here for you, whenever you need me.”

Stefan’s face lit from within. What a dear little son he had. The boy had made an obvious effort not to ring the bell...or not very often...and he’d been pretty successful. A few times, though, he had just needed to ring that bell and know his mother was on the other end.

Stefan’s steps quickened as he rounded the corner and headed up the narrow path to his home. A flash of inspiration had set his thoughts racing. “Could it work?” he asked himself. “Would I be able to pull it off...and if so, would it make a difference?”

“I’m home, Leisel!” he called, “and I have the medicine...AND an idea.” After ministering to their son’s needs and tucking him in, they went into the candlelit kitchen, put their heads together over the table, and talked late into the night.

Morning dawned with an air of mystery, worry...and more excitement than Stefan could remember feeling in a very long time. Leisel seemed more in touch with the worry.

“It’s a grand gesture,” she said, “but is it worth risking your life, for that’s what you’ll be doing. And how would we go on without you?”

“I’ve prayed about it, Leisel. It’s the Lord’s will; I know it. And He will watch over me.”

“I pray you are right,” she murmured. “When will I see you again?”

“Tomorrow morning,” Stefan replied. “Christmas morning. And a glorious Christmas it will be, too.”

“God go with you,” breathed Leisel.

“And so He will,” promised her husband. “We are believers, and we need to remember that, even now.”

“Especially now,” she agreed.

Stefan spent the day visiting the sick and afflicted, offering what cheer he could to every soul he encountered. But the shadow remained. His people were in bondage, at least in their hearts, and the soldiers who lived amongst them had stolen their hope. Robbed of freedom, the citizens of this once proud Austrian village had lost themselves, their church…maybe even their God. Questions festered within them. How could the God they thought they knew have let this happen? Why would He allow the kind of human suffering this evil regime had visited upon the innocent? With men like this in control of their beloved country, what was left to believe in?

A day earlier, Stefan had felt the same, or nearly so, but on this Christmas Eve a spark of hope rekindled his spirit. He had to succeed. He would succeed.

Evening came, and Leisel sang carols to little Wilhelm. Together, they lit a candle, decorated a small tree, and set out their Christmas shoes. After Will was snuggled into bed with a hug and a prayer, his mother made her way to the kitchen and fell to her knees.

“Protect my husband,” she pled. “Bring him back to me.” The candle flickered in the window.

Hours later, when the village was fast asleep, Stefan crawled out of his hiding place near the old church where he had conducted services so many times before. Stealthily he made his way to the tower and painstakingly climbed the creaky steps. When he reached the top, his trembling fingers wrapped themselves around the strong, sturdy cord in the belfry. Smoothly, Stefan swung into action.

“Ring. Ring.” The evening silence was broken by the clear, beautiful, and almost forgotten sound of church bells.

“Ring. Ring.”

The sounds of hope filled the air...and courage...and freedom.

“Ring. Ring. Ring.”

Again and again the old bell rang, and Stefan’s heart thudded with joy...and fear. What would happen to him this night? How would the German occupiers react to this blatant disobedience of their orders? And the people...Would it make a difference? Would ringing the bells remind them that God was there for them...would always be there for them?

All at once, Stefan looked down, his eyes drawn by a break in the darkness. A flicker of light appeared, followed by another...and another...and still others. It was his friends and neighbors, fellow Austrians all, and they were walking, candles in hand, toward the church. He could hear the soldiers below, voices harsh and complaining as they traded a sound sleep for the sound of church bells...Christmas bells.

“What have I done?” Stefan worried. “The Germans are angry, and they will vent that anger on the villagers.”

He closed his eyes, as if to reach out and protect his flock with his very thoughts. “Don’t come,” he prayed silently. “I never meant you to come. The bells were a symbol, not a signal. Stay home. Be safe.”

But, one by one, the villagers came forward. Some were holding up their lights as if to touch the heavens (or mimic them); others were carrying children, but all were coming to the church on Christmas Eve, answering the bells, remembering in that moment that God was there for them and letting Him know that they were there for Him as well. Step by step, those men and women placed their physical safety second to their spiritual well-being, reminding each other (and themselves) not only who they were but whom they had always been...Believers. Austrian believers.

Stefan’s breath caught in his throat as he saw the group assemble in front of the unwillingly mustered German army. Had he made a mistake? He had only acted on the Lord’s promptings. Surely God would protect and defend His people.

Just as the German commander called his troops to attention, one of the children broke out in song. Stefan smiled ruefully. It was true, just as he had thought. Sometimes the innocent heart of a child forgets to be afraid.

Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht. Silent Night. Holy night.

Many voices joined in, and invisible chains were broken in remembrance of a night like no other, a sacred night in ancient Bethlehem, when earth and heaven met and peace was promised.

And peace prevailed…for that moment, at least. Slowly, almost reverently, the soldiers turned and walked back into the silent church that had become their barracks. Meanwhile, the villagers sang, and Stefan spoke, and Christ was remembered.

Joy to the world. Peace on earth, good will toward men. No matter how cruel the trial or how difficult the season, we can honor Him…and ourselves. Every time we act in His name, for His sake, we are ringing those Christmas bells that proclaim Christ’s life and death and all they mean to us.

May the examples of young Will summoning his mother and Stefan reaching out to his congregation always ring true in our hearts. May we understand and embrace our need to gain strength and hope through ringing our own bells of faith, belief, and service…reminding ourselves that He is, and ever will be, on the other end.

~ The End ~

Longtime friends of Sue's News, Views 'n Muse know how much I love writing a Christmas Eve story for my family every year. I can't leak the 2013 tale prematurely, but it does give me great pleasure to share another story with you, one written many years ago. Joy to the World has become something of a family favorite, and I hope you will find something in it that is just for you. 

Merry Christmas, everyone!


Just Believe

Gifts from the Book of Life
The Fisher Kings: A Winter's Tale
In the Spirit of Christmas

for more E posts, click below


Lola said...

Such an uplifting story for times such as those in which we now find ourselves.

Our very best season's greetings to you and your family, Sue.

Leovi said...

Thanks for this delightful Christmas story! Excellent!

Gattina said...

That's a rather sad story, I think Christmas must have been a hard time for my parents too. People all celebrated with fear ... it was not appreciated by the Nazis !

JDaniel4's Mom said...

What a delight it was to read this wonderful tale!

Brian Miller said...

wow. goosebumps....what a story...inspiring...and wow. perfect christmas story...may joy and peace break out on our world....

Tracy Cook said...

thank you so much

Carol L McKenna said...

Wonderful and joyful story ~ Happy Xmas to you and all ~ carol, xxx

Granny-Guru said...

What a beautiful story about such a dark time. I've recently learned that my great-aunt, a missionary who taught English in Japan did not come home to the U.S. at Pearl Harbor. She came home two years earlier because already it was not safe for her in Japan. She returned after the war and stayed the rest of her life. We forget that what governments do is not what all the people want.

~T~ said...

Wonderful! Thank you...

Judie said...

What a wonderful story, Sue. I can see how it has become a Christmas tradition!!

Karen S. said...

Secretly, I knew you'd brighten my day in an excellent way!

EG CameraGirl said...

The story kept me spellbound to the end, Sue. I look forward to hearing what you have in store for 2013!

LeAnn said...

Thank you Sue for sharing this beautiful story; I am in tears. I will share this with my family.
Have a marvelous Christmas celebration with your family and friends. You are much loved by me even though we haven't met personally.
Blessings, love and hugs!

Eva Gallant said...

What a beautiful, touching story! Well done.

BECKY said...

Beautiful, Sue!

Gail said...

With tears I say God was with them.

Well done.

Nancy Claeys said...

Merry Christmas Sue!

K9friend said...

Popped over from Becky's blog to read your story. It certainly embodies the spirit of the season in a lovely way. Merry Christmas!

Critter Alley

karen said...

As always, this story was such a good one - full of hope and inspiration. Merry Christmas to you and your wonderful family. LaMar and I are looking forward to seeing you in January!

Nguyen Huu Manh said...

hanks for this delightful Christmas story!
Vietnam places

Mimi said...

Really beautiful story. I just watched The Sound of Music this afternoon, so Austria in times of occupation is very much in my thoughts.
I was totally immersed in your story; it is so well written.

Grandma Yellow Hair said...

Sue what a remarkable story to share with us for Christmas.
Just a few weeks ago I went to the movies to see A Book Thief and this story reminded me of the suffering that was shown in this movie during the horrible reign of Hitler and his armies.
We are so lucky to live in a country where we can worship openly and not be afraid of persecution.
It was the prefect Christmas story and thank you for sharing it with us.
I thought of you and your precious Mom on Christmas Day. I hope you had a special time together.
My computer is giving me nightmares so not able to blog unless I go to the library.
Time for a new one. ugh
Happy New Year

Jenny said...

Absolutely excellent...

This story reminds me of everything that the holidays stand for...

Thank you so much for sharing this for the letter "E"!

I can't express how wonderfully written this is!


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