Just a few years ago, on Christmas Eve, the family was sitting around, of all things, a laptop computer. The image on the screen was, as they say in television land, live. A handsome man in Army fatigues looked out as his wife bravely smiled back from her seat in our living room and wished him peace and joy.
I glanced over at the wife's sister, my other daughter, tears lining her face, which was, like mine, thankfully out of sight of the young warrior. For him, dry eyes and smiles were the order of the moment. Chris survived Christmas, survived the entire tour in Iraq, and returned to us whole and healthy, in peace and joy many months later.
Some time after that Christmas, I was tasked with delivering career transition training to workers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to prepare them for that base's closure and their looming unemployment. There I got to see many patients who, unlike Chris, did not return whole and healthy.
I was overwhelmingly sad, yes, but the surprising emotion was a white-hot anger I could barely control and feel now as I write. Every face was, unlike mine, ridiculously young. All wore the wary smiles of kids determined to test the possibilities and the limits of their new lives. Their love of country had hurled them to a distant land where they, like generations stretching back to Valley Forge, discovered that the asking price for freedom was bartered in arms and legs, sight and hearing, and sometimes the very ability to think and reason clearly.
They did not deserve this challenge, and I did not deserve the sacrifice they willingly made for me. When I went to Camp Lejeune for other training, I recall grabbing a quick lunch at a fast-food place on base. As I ate my burger, I noticed at the table in front of me a couple. The Marine was a woman in fatigues facing my way but looking intently into the eyes of her husband, a civilian whose head kept tilting down as if he simply could not hold it up. Young, so devastatingly young.
Their hands extended across the table, and they couldn't let go even though it interfered with their eating. They would part soon, and touching was a luxury they refused to take for granted. I looked around at the otherwise empty tables, aware that they were not empty at all. They held the places of those who would never return to grasp their lovers' hands, from whom the battlefield asked the simplest price: everything.
This year, Chris is with us as he has been for several years. His second daughter, born in October, will spend her first Christmas warm and safe in her daddy's arms. Her name is Lila, lily, the purest blossom of all.
My religious tradition tells a rather odd story. It concerns a God whose son also leaves the security of home and travels to a distant land, there to be born in a feeding crib.
His mission seems very different from that of soldiers. He lays down the sword, for his hands are busy reversing the effects of war - restoring sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, making the lame walk, and even bringing the dead to life. He heals wounded souls as well, casting out demons and bringing inner peace to sinners racked with guilt.
He tells us that my God wants only that we do this for one another. He calls it love. Three distinguished Wise Men have visited the son at his lowly birth, and with their gifts revealed him. Two of the gifts established him as ruler of this new kingdom of love, as son of the God who sent him. The third gift was a bitter perfume, myrrh, which breathes of life of gathering gloom, sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in a stone-cold tomb.
Yes, the son who comes to Earth's desolate land to free us meets the same fate as too many of those youthful warriors who likewise traveled far to free us, although his weapons are healing and forgiveness.
I told you it was an odd story, but many of my faith hold that it is true. I do not say it is easy to believe in a son who wants so much for us to be free that he lays down his life. However, those beautiful sons and daughters returning to us, and those who will not return, have done just that, and they dwell among us today. They make the Christmas story much less difficult to believe.