The Wondrous Gift
by Bob Yearty
He was a giant of a man – and that is being conservative. When he placed his hands upon your head, it was like being encased in a football helmet but somehow those hands were comforting and reassuring beyond any I’ve ever known. The man was impressive and could have been imposing but he was gentle and contemplative, and he was able to share his faith and beliefs in the most simplistic ways. Among other things, he had been a professional wrestler before entering the priesthood and eventually became a Bishop, which is where I encountered him as a young pre-teen. I will personally attest to those hands on your head and the feelings I had when he confirmed me back in 1960. I’m speaking of Bishop Charles C.J. Carpenter, the long-serving (1938-68) Bishop of Alabama.
Bishop Carpenter is remembered in books, stories, and legends throughout the Episcopal church and his work on many issues was incisive, intuitive, and influential. But I want to share something personal from him that has stuck with me all the rest of my life.
It was a hot, pre-air-conditioning, July day in the small Trinity Episcopal Church, Birmingham, AL where I grew up. We might have had 60 communicants so even if an AC unit was available, paying the bill to run it would have been difficult. The Bishop was making his annual visit, probably for confirmations, though I remember this was not when I was confirmed. The windows were open, and a few fans caused a breeze that only served to circulate the hot air. I remember how hot I was in my acolyte robes and I remember thinking how uncomfortable the Bishop must be in all those robes he was wearing.
In his booming voice, the Bishop began his sermon by asking everyone to turn in their hymnals to the Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Really…? In July and in that stifling heat we were to think of Christmas? Really? He invited us to please take a moment to read the third verse;
I’m sure the Bishop tied that verse in with many of the problems of 1960’s Birmingham but the part that stood out most to me was that our Lord comes in humility – as a child and in silence – no ear may hear his coming yet the wondrous gift is given. God’s blessing of his heavenly promise is given to our human hearts even though our souls are meek and we live in this world of sin. Yes, even then, still, the dear Christ enters in.
So, as we make our way through this Christmas season, let’s take time to reflect and contemplate. Just over 2000 years ago a single child was born in silence – no marching bands, no fireworks, just a manger in a barn because there was no room for his parents in the inn. Yet that single event gave life to a person that changed the entire world for eternity. God has given us the blessing of his heaven. Open our hearts and let our meek souls receive him – the dear Christ enters in.