If you're like me, you've been bombarded with Christmas Carols over the past several weeks. And not just by carols – but by every crooner and performer that could conceivably sing the stuff, from Willie Nelson to the Canadian Brass, from Frank Sinatra to Diana Krall, from Ella Fitzgerald to Nat (and Natalie) King Cole.
So it's probably understandable that I actually tune out a lot of this music as long as I can, in order to wrap my mind and voice around it at the proper time.
But a few days ago, my eyes and heart were opened to a phrase that I'd sung for years, heard for years, but had never really thought much about. It's in verse three of Away in a Manger, and the text goes as follows:
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.
Just out of the blue, I found myself fascinated with the whole concept of this text: We are fitted for heaven. We don't just show up at the gates of eternity and ask for admission. There is a process involved, a "fitting," if you will. An active give and take, a stretching, a wearing down of rough edges, a planting of the flag and a conformity, all at one and the same time.
Fitted for heaven.
I look at the empty manger scene (the very one sung about in this hymn), and I wonder what God has actually done in my own life, this year, to cajole me into the sacred landscape. Almost as if I'm a shoe or a coat: where have I been stretched? Where has the cutting of the cloth taken place? Where is the hole in the coat pocket or the worn out sections? Is everything fitting properly?
When I walk with students at the University, more often than not they're pondering what to do with their lives, and most times they've got, as do most enterprising students, several game plans to choose from. And I find myself often using language like this: "If you make this decision with your life, how does it fit? Walk in these shoes for a while. How does the decision feel? Do you feel comfortable with it?"
In the song, I especially love what precedes the notion of "fitting for heaven." It calls down a blessing on children. Children, who love spontaneity, enter so effortlessly into the eternity of playtime, who are innocent and full of trust. Being like children might just be a key to being fitted into the kingdom of heaven.
These thoughts swirl around me as I stand before the empty manger, looking down upon the straw, and ask myself the selfsame questions that I pose to Notre Dame students: "How am I being fitted for heaven?"
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