On Wednesday night, a group of us from the church walked down the hill to the Ashmont T station and sang carols for the commuters. While we were there, I could not help but notice that Ashmont station is a hub of activity. There were people using every form of transportation: cars, cabs, busses, trains, bicycles and walking. There was a steady stream of busy people, some rushing past our makeshift choir and others lingering for a moment but ultimately moving onto other matters. And there were so many noises: car alarms, public address announcements, stray musical sounds and digital voices from cell phone speakers.
Yet, in the midst of all the hustle and bustle, there we were, proclaiming the joy, hope, peace and love of the Savior and handing out candy canes to those who would take them. As Philips Brooks wrote 150 years ago, “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light….” While the rest of the neighborhood was moving about, accomplishing the things of their “To Do” lists, we were being used by God to provide a gentle reminder of the reason we celebrate. Above the din of humanity, the soft sounds of the baby born in the manger, the angels and Magi who visited, and the good tidings for all people could be heard.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. Luke 2:1-4
Is our experience at the Ashmont T station a few nights ago what it was like in Bethlehem all those years ago? While it is unclear how many were living in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth (some scholars suggest as few as 300 or as many as 1,000), the biblical account of the events that occurred in Bethlehem are clear: so many people flooded this small village outside Jerusalem because of a governmentally decreed census that living space was at a premium. There were travelers, noises and activity aplenty and few, if any, stopped to notice the world changing couple that came to town. The urgency of the moment overwhelmed the importance of the advent, the appearing, of the Savior of humankind.
We, too, can get wrapped up in all that still needs doing that we overlook what has been done. We need to purchase gifts, wrap gifts, bake cookies, consume wassail, attend parties, visit family, connect with friends, worship on Christmas Eve, stuff stockings and settle down for a long winter’s nap. We can, like subway commuters and census participants, lose track of what is important as we engage in the things that are urgent. I pray that, in the midst of all the people, noise and activity of the next few days, you hear the angels’ song and delight in the birth of our Lord.
What is the going rate for a blessing from God? I ask because a man at the Ashmont T station is selling them for 50 cents apiece. “You got fifty cents or a dollar to spare?” was the question I overheard him ask two women as they crossed the street. Obliging his request, he responded with “God bless you!” Curious about this transaction, I lingered. I heard another request, but no exchange of money and no blessing. Before I wandered off to attend my affairs, I heard the request a third time and witnessed the positive reply with some coinage changing hands, and I heard the pronouncement of God resting favor upon the man’s benefactor. So now I wonder: is that really all it takes to receive God’s blessing?
There are three answers to this question that immediately come to my mind: 1) that we are blessed by God whenever we do good; 2) that we are blessed by God so that we have the resources to do good; or 3) that we have been blessed by God irrespective of our behavior and we do good because it is the only suitable response. The first answer espouses the principle of ‘karma’ – good comes to you because you do good. The second espouses the principle of ‘obligation’ – good comes to you and therefore you need to do good for others. The last espouses the principle of ‘love’ – God who has already given you His greatest good and everything you could ever need so do good for others as a reflection of what you’ve received..
“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” Numbers 6:24-26
It seems fair to say that the quid pro quo understanding of blessing is, at best, an inexact process. I’d like to think that I am benevolent to those in need, my right hand not knowing what my left hand is doing. However generous I may be, I rarely (though not never) see a reciprocating act of generosity toward me. It also seems fair to say that the “pay it forward” understanding of blessing is a challenge. There is always more to do in alleviating suffering and extending compassion, which makes understanding blessing as responsibility difficult to quantify. It leaves us asking when we’ve satisfied our giving and can move forward free of any and all guilt.
The only solution to the question of earning God’s blessing is to state that we cannot earn God’s blessing. Whatever we do that might be considered good is merely a reflection of Him and all the goodness and blessing He has lavished upon us. We do good – we act compassionately, we walk peaceably and we offer forgiveness – because God has been good to us even though we are undeserving and were unappreciative. We do not do good so that we might be blessed; because we have been blessed we do good.
So, if I see that man at the T station again, and he should say to me, “God bless you,” my response will be, “He already has!”