December 24, 2018

Series: December 2018

Category: Christmas Eve

Speaker: Rob McClellan


          One of the joys of living on the West Coast is that everything happens three hours earlier than I was accustomed growing up in the Eastern time zone.  Now, by the time I wake up, much of the news has already unfolded for the day (for better or worse), games and other events happen while I’m still able to stay awake, on New Year’s I get to watch the ball drop at 9 p.m.,  and Christmas…while there’s nothing like a midnight service, or at least one that lets out at midnight, I’m glad I can count our 9 p.m. service.  At the church where my wife and I served together back East, we had four services on Christmas eve, starting at 10:30 in the morning and lasting until midnight, 4-5 thousand people.  There was something about walking across the crisply frozen parking lot to our home next to the church at that hour.  Midnight.  There’s something special about midnight on this night. 

 “The Oxen” by Thomas Hardy

 Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.

‘Now they are all on their knees,’

An elder said as we sat in a flock

By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where

They dwelt in their strawy pen,

Nor did it occur to one of us there

To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave

In these years! Yet, I feel,

If someone said on Christmas Eve,

‘Come; see the oxen kneel,

‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb

Our childhood used to know,’

I should go with him in the gloom,

Hoping it might be so.

           This poem, with its imagery of a strawy pen and creatures meek and mild gathered on Christmas Eve at first glance off the ear connotes all the warmth we’ve come to expect this time of year.  Listen a little more closely and we detect a melancholier tone.  The animals are here kneeling, as the legend says, at the birth of Christ, the reverence reaching all creation.  Yet, the human voice in the poem, belongs to an adult who is longing for the faith “childhood used to know.”  Hardy, the poet himself, had long lost his faith by the time he penned this poem, even though he kept up with religious trappings.  We find him in the last line, “hoping it might be so.”[1]  Perhaps you find yourself there, longing and hoping, wondering perhaps, wondering if you can faithfully place your hope in a truly unbelievable story – a child in a manger, a savior for all, to mend all things together. 

Hardy’s poem speaks not merely to a personal crisis, but a collective one.  The poem was written in 1915, during World War I, the “Great” War, when the world seemed, indeed was, coming apart.  You can find Hardy’s poem in the worship bulletin for “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” held at King’s College in Cambridge.  That service was first held in 1918 barely a month after the armistice was signed, and to my knowledge has been held every year since.  The Dean of the college and former army chaplain Eric Milner-White, who became a pioneer in liturgy, was only 34 when he commissioned the service.  I wonder if he knew he needed to offer something grounding to a college and community and country that had been so uprooted by the war.  The liturgy traces salvation history, readings interspersed with carols.  It’s the prayer that Milner-White gives gave near the outset that always creates a lump in my throat:

“Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmas Eve our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the angels; in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger.”  There we are again at that strawy scene (where perhaps the oxen were kneeling).  “Let us read and mark in Holy Scripture,” he continues, “the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child.”  Milner-White prays for the church, his school, his land and its leaders.  He goes on, and this is the part that gets me, “And because this of all things would rejoice his heart, let us at this time remember in his name the poor and the helpless, the cold, the hungry and the oppressed; the sick in body and in mind and them that mourn; the lonely and the unloved; the aged and the little children; all who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have grieved his heart of love. Lastly let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we for evermore are one.”  Milner-White concludes with the Lord’s prayer, that familiar recitation that holds us like a manger.

Hope in the midst of the night.  Hope at midnight.  Is that why we cling to this story?  Hope at midnight?

Well, I’d like to tell you about the time the chicken ran at midnight.  Yes, I know that’s a funny phrase, so let me start at the beginning, which is where we start this night.

In 1992, Rich Donnelly was the third base coach for the Major League baseball team, The Pittsburgh Pirates.  He had sacrificed a fair bit of time with his family to fulfill his dream of making it to the big leagues (as a play, then coach).  That year his daughter Amy, I think 14 at the time, was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  Amy had grown close with the Pirates manager, Jim Leyland, and she told Leyland if they made it to the playoffs, she would go to a game.  Sure enough they did and she did.  While watching, she was close enough to the field to overhear her dad coaching, yelling to the baserunners, but she couldn’t make out what he was saying.  After the game she said, “Dad, when you get down in that stance with a guy on second, what are you telling him?  ‘The chicken runs at midnight or what?’”  They instantly laughed at the phrase and it became a kind of running joke in the family.  When the siblings or parents would leave, they’d part by saying, “The chicken runs at midnight.”  “The chicken runs at midnight.”

Tragically, in January of 1993, Amy died, succumbing to the brain tumor.  Amy’s tombstone even bore the fateful phrase.

Fast forward four years later.  It’s 1997 and Donnelly is now third base coach of the then Florida Marlins.  Two of Donnelly’s sons, Tim and Mike, were batboys for the team.  One of the players was a guy named Craig Counsell.  Counsell had this funny way of holding that bat really high with one arm flapping out.  One of his boys thought it looked like a chicken wing, so he nicknamed him “the chicken.”  It stuck and, at least to them, he was “the chicken” all summer.

Fast forward to the end of the season.  It’s the World Series, the championship, and the Marlins are in it.  Game Seven, it’s tied up and the bottom of the 11th inning, so the game has gone long.  Edgar Renteria is at bat and Counsell is on third base.  It’s in Miami, so the place is going crazy, 68,000 people.  Donnelly can hardly breathe standing next to Counsell on third.  Renteria gets a hit, Counsell takes off and scores the winning run, game over.  As his customary, the players and coaches storm the field.  Donnelly is looking for his sons in the melee.  Halfway between first and second base he finds Tim and picks him up, but quickly realizes Tim is crying.  His face is beet red with tears coming down his face.  “Why are you crying,” Donnelly asks, “what’s the matter with you?” 

Tim points to the outfield, “Dad, Dad, look, look!  Look at the clock.”  Donnelly turned to see the scoreboard clock.  It was by now 12:02 a.m.  Tim continued, “The chicken ran at midnight.” 

Can you faithfully put your trust in an unbelievable story?  On this night of all nights, yes, yes, yes.  So, come let us adore him…Amen.

[1] Background on Hardy’s poem from https://interestingliterature.com/2016/12/16/a-short-analysis-of-thomas-hardys-the-oxen/