Luke 1. 46b -55
I suspect we all have a favorite Christmas story, a moment in time that in a quiet moment is resurrected in our head. There is something about Christmas which gives us permission to dream of a time gone by and even wistfully wish those moments would once again appear. I remember going to Williamsburg as a child for the lighting of the candles. On returning home, we would stand just off the front porch and shout for all the world to hear, “Mrs. Andrews, light your candles.” I remember firing a shotgun on Christmas morn as a way of remembering the death of my grandfather. Those memories are weaved into the very fabric of our life story and sometimes, just at the right time, they are resurrected to remind us of the delight Christmas once was and still can be when we allow ourselves to be captured by the mystery and grace of this season.
In that respect Mary was no different from us. This child, soon to turn woman, had her own stories, her own memories that celebrated the hand of God in both the ordinary and the extraordinary. Like most Jewish girls experiencing life swelling in side her, Mary remembered the miracle of Hannah the mother of Samuel. She remembered the song that Hannah sang when she became pregnant. It was not just a song celebrating a son; it was a song rejoicing over what this birth might bring.
Listen once again. “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. For God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed for the mighty has done great things for me. Blessed is his name. God’s mercy is on those who fear him. God has shown strength and scattered the proud, God has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry and sent the rich away. God has remembered us in God’s mercy and remembered the promise made to Abraham.”
Each birth fulfilled the ancient covenant; each birth evoked a memory; each birth offered the possibility of a miracle.
It was late in December, 1973. I was stationed at Camp Casey, about 90 kilometers north of Seoul, Korea. I had been scheduled to spend 13 months in an infantry company but quickly found a way to become a trumpet player for what was unofficially but appropriately titled the Second Division Blues Band. Never was there a bluer time in my life than spending that Christmas with three other G.I’s in a metal Quonset hut half way around the world.
Our residence was a semi-circular tin can with an oil stove in the middle. It was attached to the back another building for stability. We crammed four beds and standing lockers into the small space called it home. Our job, during the month of December was to load up every morning in a bus and travel through out the Second Division giving Christmas concerts to soldiers and the occasional audience of Korean Children. You would have thought it would have given us great joy to spread such good news all over the land but the opposite was true. Christmas music still grates on me in a less than positive way.
Besides myself, three other musicians occupied our hut. Steve, an artist and drummer from Iowa would occupy his time with water colors. I noticed during the holidays he only used charcoal prints. Ted was a trombone player from Pennsylvania. He loved everything about Penn State. Ron, another trumpet player, was the youngest member of our group and the only one who was married. He had a son, born in July. Ron had only seen once. There was a fifth member of our but we never thought much about him. His name was Mr. Lee. He was an older man who washed and ironed our clothes once a week, shined our shoes, and made sure we had fuel for our stove. If we gave him cigarettes, Mr. Lee he would find a second can guaranteeing the hut would stay warm through most of the night.
The highlight of our day was when we would pull in from our journeys and check to see if any mail had come in. Packages and mail from home was a joy, especially for Ron. It was his only connection with his wife and child. One day we received a ceramic Christmas tree which stood every bit of nine inches high. We found a small table, put tree on the table and plugged it in whenever we were home. When a present arrived, it would be placed under the table. Even cookies and cakes, no matter how stale, were stashed under the table. We were determined to make something of Christmas Day.
Our biggest surprise was a Christmas ham sent by Ron’s wife. It was one of those little canned ham, probably more Spam than real meat but for the four of us it was to be the center piece of our Christmas Dinner. We counted down the days until we could open the ham and shamelessly devour it. No mess hall food for us. We were preparing for a feast. We respectfully placed the ham on the little table beside the tree.
I remember Christmas Eve as if it were yesterday. Every camp north of Casey seemed to have promised their guys a bit of Christmas. We played six shows that day and didn’t pull into Casey until almost midnight. We were exhausted. All I wanted to do was pull off my boots and fall into bed. But not Ron. As soon as we got off the bus he was like a kid waiting to see Santa. All he had talked about was opening the gifts sent to him from his son. Much to the chagrin of Steve and Ted, we decided we would each open one gift just to get Ron off our back. We stumbled into the hut, turned on the tree lights and heard Ron scream, “Oh my God, where is the ham?”
I looked on the floor; Ted looked behind the beds while Ron stood in the middle of the room screaming. It was obvious the ham was gone. There was no consoling Ron. It was as if that ham had been picked out by his infant son. It took us some time to calm him down. It was pretty obvious what had happened. Mr. Lee had slipped in while we were gone and taken the ham for himself. Ron wanted to go into the village and search for the thief but we knew that was impossible. We told Ron we would go with him the next day to find the thief. Reluctantly agreeing, grabbed a six pack of beer, and went outside. He sat against the hut, popped a top, drank a beer and threw the can on top of the hut. I was reawakened each time a can would roll to the ground.
The next morning was the worst Christmas of my life. Nobody had slept. Ron was drunk. Steve was mad because Ron had drunk his beer. Ted was angry because he found out all his Penn State buddies were going to the Orange Bowl to see Penn State play LSU. Furthermore, there was no ham, therefore no meal, therefore in our minds, no Christmas.
About three o’clock that afternoon there was a knock on our door. Everyone else had left, which in retrospect was a good thing. I opened the door and was greeted by a Korean man and woman. The woman introduced herself as the daughter of Mr. Lee. She then introduced Mr. Park. She told us that Mr. Park would be taking over the duties as our houseboy because her father could no longer serve us. Before I could speak, she continued. Each year her father and others worked hard to prepare a special meal at a local orphanage. Mr. Lee had noticed the ham on the table and wanted to offer his additional services for the ham but feared you would not part with it. Yesterday when he knew there was not enough meat for the children, he came back to tell you his plight. But you were not here so he stole the ham. He knew you would not go hungry, even without the ham. He could not say the same of the children. Mr. Lee’s daughter left me with these words, “My father has dishonored himself and can longer work for you.”
I wanted to tell her if Mr. Lee had told us about the children we would have given him money, but I could not. Up until that moment I had only seen Mr. Lee as a houseboy, someone who washed my clothes, shined my shoes and stole fuel for an extra cigarette. If anything we probably thought he was overpaid. I viewed him as a slave, not a savior.
Mary sang, “God has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things. God has remembered us and been merciful.” Perhaps I never fully understood those words until that Christmas Day in 1973.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lee, wherever you are.