Have yourself a merry little Christmas — somehow
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, a song first recorded by Judy Garland, was introduced in the 1944 movie musical “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Garland’s character Esther sings it to comfort her upset little sister Tootie, played by Margaret O’Brien.
The song was poignantly recontextualized when Judy Garland performed it live for World War II servicemen at the Hollywood Canteen, a club that offered food and entertainment to soldiers, many of whom were preparing for deployment.
The first two stanzas sing an encouragement to remain optimistic despite the present trouble and the bridge invokes a hoped-for reunion. It’s the last stanza (heavily edited in later versions to make it more upbeat) which tells the truth:
Someday soon, we all will be together, if the fates allow
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now
“Muddle through…” That really captures it for many of us this season. A melancholy song resonates because this time of year often provides palpable reminders of the fact that, in spite of our efforts to keep up, many things are not as we believe they ought to be.
The last weeks of the semester present challenges aplenty, keeping students and faculty up late (or early) in order to accomplish all of those things that are necessary for success. Hopes for holiday family reunions remain partly (or fully) unfulfilled in the constraints imposed by distance or death. If we can make time to be together, it may come at the cost of stressful preparation. Sometimes it seems that for every emotionally satisfying sight of Christmas delight in the eyes of little children, there are as many angry words exchanged between folks who love one another but don’t really understand one another any more.
The first Christmas was filled with just as much trouble.
In a sermon given for Christmas, Luther imagines,
Joseph had to do his best, and it may well be that he asked some maid to fetch water or something else, but we do not read that anyone came to help. They heard that a young wife was lying in a cow stall and no one gave heed. Shame on you, wretched Bethlehem! (Source: Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, edited by Roland Bainton.)
Clearly, Joseph and Mary are muddling through.
Then Pastor Luther goes on to anticipate that his hearers believe they would have done better by the season.
There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: “If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the Baby! I would have washed his linen.… You say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at that time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem.…Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor…what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ himself.
Appearances to the contrary, the point is not to shame his audience into greater acts of service. The insight is this: that Christ comes into a world that is full of frustration and failure. His very birth is such an occasion and his whole life and ministry will be a full and continuous engagement in the predicament of a creation where the best humanity can offer is to somehow muddle through.
Luther concludes with an appeal to pay attention to the smallness and ordinary nature of the birth of Jesus.
Let us, then, meditate upon the Nativity just as we see it happening in our own babies. I would not have you contemplate the deity of Christ, the majesty of Christ, but rather his flesh.
It’s not in our successful efforts to achieve the perfect paper or ideal course review that we find our hope. It’s not in a family gathering where all things go impossibly well nor in the strength of our resolve to not miss beloved ones who are no longer with us. It’s in Christ’s embodied commitment to the muddled predicament of human existence that we find the source of joy for this season.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas.
Dec. 5, 2018
This devotional essay first appeared in the December 5, 2018 Chapel newsletter as well as in the Cresset, Valparaiso University’s Review of literature, the arts, and public affairs. Advent-Christmas 2018 (Vol LXXXII, No. 1, pp 56-57)
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