Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey
Devotional for the 2nd Week of Advent
Dec 8, 2020
In November 1944 a new musical opened on the New York stage called “Meet Me in St. Louis.” It starred among others the legendary Judy Garland, and it was a smash hit. Over time “Meet Me in St. Louis” was made into a movie several times over, and it has entered the Library of Congress list of 100 movies that have become a classic. The plot is simple enough: three daughters of marriageable age finally get their guys. But the uplifting songs and the fresh hope displayed was just what the American public needed to see and hear in November 1944.
In the midst of costly battles across the seas and, at home, heartache and worry and loss, “Meet Me in St. Louis” opens on Broadway. People came night after night to be transported back to a different time at the turn of the 20th century. Maybe the weight of their troubles could be lifted even for a couple of hours.
The show contains many memorable tunes. “The Trolley Song” was an Academy Award nominee for example. But the one song that has lasted the best over the decades, the one the Fort Worth Symphony plays every year during their Home for the Holidays concert, the one you will find in every book of Christmas songs is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light.
From now on,
Our troubles will be out of sight.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the Yule-tide gay.
From now on, our troubles will be miles away.
Here we are as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more.
Through the years we all will be together,
If the Fates allow,
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
You may not have thought about it before, but this is the only song I know that talks about Christmas and Fate. Do you know any carol that talks about Christmas and Fate? I don’t. But this song had the right words to speak to the hearts of those who night after night came to be whisked away by the theatrical magic of “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
You will recall that the D-Day landings had occurred only five months earlier. While Allied forces were making steady progress in taking back Europe from Nazi Germany, the eventual outcome was still very much in the balance. Germany still had robust military power and was desperate enough to take large risks in stopping the Allied push toward Berlin. The Battle of the Bulge would be fought with tremendous loss to American forces less than a month after Judy Garland walked on the stage. In the Far East American and Commonwealth forces threw themselves at bitterly entrenched Japanese defenders.
In the midst of these dark days of trouble, the song invites us to put our troubles far away. We are to imagine ourselves back “in olden days, happy golden days of yore.” Look at all the faithful friends gathered near to us! the song claims, confidently. Through the years we all will be together.
But then the lyrics bring us up short with an important condition, “if the Fates allow.” A shadow of fate falls upon Christmas, and the horrors of war suddenly intrude again. At that point, the nostalgia of yesteryear is invaded by the present brutal reality of war. However, in the face of Fate, the song ends with a defiant call “to hang a shining star upon the highest bough,/And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.”
If the Fates allow. How that resonated with folk in 1944! How it resonates with us today! The sober observer of Ecclesiastes reminds us, “one fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and unclean…As is the good person, so is the sinner…This is an evil in all that is done under the sun; that one fate comes to all…that is why human hearts are full of evil and madness…for their only [fate] is to die.” The writer of Ecclesiastes may not be the happiest person in the world, but he surely is the most honest. “[T]he race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance [that is, fate] happen to them all.”
How we know there is no one-to-one correlation between effort and result! You may know a friend beset by a terrible disease. You may have been kicked out of a good job. You may be an unemployed college graduate. You may have a troubled child. And you can think of nothing that you did to cause this. You thought you knew the rules of the game and were playing it fairly. You put your trust in a Providence that assured you a secure future. But Fate has other plans. Judy Garland had it right: “Through the years we all will be together if the Fates allow.” That’s the big IF of Fate.
Living under Fate can do two things to us. First, it makes us live under the tyranny of the Now. Remember that the last phrase is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas now.” Here we are together now, but I can’t say for sure in the future, so if everything is up for grabs, then I am going to grab everything I can right now. Here we are together now, but I can’t say for sure in the future, so I have to make this Christmas RIGHT NOW the best, the most perfect time. So we get very uptight and demanding and touchy. Our lives may be taken from us right now, so we will throw caution to the wind now and act blindly on impulse. “We need a little Christmas, right this very minute/Candles in the window, carols by the spinet….We need a little Christmas now.”
The second thing living by Fate does is to fuel the “so-what” kind of life. Cheating, stealing, lying. So what. Once upon a time you could find more examples of people who acted out of conviction instead of trying to avoid conviction. “Just say No” has been replaced with “just say nothing.” The standard response is the shrug. Living by Fate lets you can talk calmly about the deaths of primary school children and call them “planned losses” which are necessary to protect your rights under the 2nd Amendment.
“If the Fates allow” puts all life under the big IF. Christmas is God’s confrontation with Life by Fate. Christmas means liberation from a Life by Fate. Christmas means: God has something better than Fate in store for you and me. Christmas means: God has a better attitude to give you than being a slave to the tyranny of the Now. God wants to relax your shoulders from the perpetual cynical shrug.
Jesus was born under the big IF; he was subject to time and chance. He was only days old when he just barely escaped Fate catching up with him when Herod’s soldiers killed all the boy babies in Bethlehem. During his adult life, he played the game of life the best of them all. He chose 12 followers and put his trust in them. And what did he get for it? Time and chance caught up with him. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He got betrayed and crucified, and under his religion that meant he was cursed by God. The mocking laughter of the big IF of Fate rang all around the one who hung on Calvary’s cross. The cruel hand of Fate sealed his body in a tomb and walked away pleased with the evil and madness it had caused among his followers. One of his followers committed suicide. Another bailed out and went home a defeated man. A third was plagued by doubt and depression. My friends, Jesus knows exactly how Life by Fate runs its course. Jesus knows exactly what Fate does.
But God has another future in store for us beyond the worst of what Fate can do. So, God raises Jesus from the dead, liberating him from the seal of Fate. God takes him to a realm beyond the reach of Fate. In the Apostles’ Creed we call that “the right hand of God the Father.” Now God makes it possible for you to hang a shining star from the highest bough. Here’s why. Because Jesus in his life on earth so identified with us in our situation, he now carries us with him into his new situation. Beyond Fate and into the safe haven of love, peace, joy, kindness, and generosity.
That’s what Christmas is all about. Time and chance may catch up with us, but Fate does not define us. We have a new floor put under our feet that lets us face the uncertain future with confidence. We can be relaxed, unwind, not be so uptight and fretful over perfection. Give yourself a Christmas gift of time to play, to love, to dream. God backstops our feeble efforts to do the right thing with power to resurrect goodness from the dead.