By Chaplain Gerard Mauterer
Ernest Gordon, author of Miracle on the River Kwai, recounted this true story: a Japanese officer began screaming and waving his arms angrily at the grimy group of Scottish POWs being forced to construct the infamous Burma Railway during World War II. When one of the shovels came up missing, the Japanese soldier furiously demanded to know which prisoner had stolen or hidden it. Becoming more enraged by the moment, the officer demanded that the missing shovel be produced, or he’d begin killing all of the prisoners.
When nobody budged, the officer drew his rifle and was about to fire when one of the men stepped forward. The officer laid down his rifle, picked up a shovel and beat the man to death. When it was over, the POW prisoners carried the corpse with them to the next ‘tool check’ point. This time, no shovel was missing. There had been a miscount at the previous check point. Like wildfire, word spread throughout the POW camp that an innocent man had sacrificed himself so that the others might live!
So, what does this have to do with Christmas, you may ask? Good question, especially since Christmas IS my favorite holiday! This year, because of COVID-19, things here in Germany will probably look nothing like any Christmas or Chanukah we’ve ever seen before. There’s a good chance most of us cannot travel home, while our stateside families cannot travel here. Get-togethers are expected to be severely limited in size, foreign travel prevented, hotels closed, restaurants with take-out only, and facemasks confounding our daily interactions. At first glance, one might think that gloom could consume our upcoming Holiday Season. But, I think not!
You see, our fond memories of places are very rarely tied to buildings, parks and cities. Rather, they’re formed through the relationships we both build and experience while we’re there. One of many examples I have for this pertains to a coworker of mine who surprisingly had always argued adamantly against taking any assignment to Hawaii. In time, though, through deeper conversation, he confessed that he in fact found the islands beautiful, but the toxic leadership at his unit had done such great damage to him and his family that the mention of Hawaii just evokes bitterness.
For this Christmas season, I believe we have an incredible opportunity sitting before us. Whereas usually we can find ourselves heavily distracted by the busyness of Holiday travel and activities, this year offers us a much more rare and special gift: time and people. Should all the COVID restrictions end up being in effect, then let us be determined to make time to invite friends over and to seek to build deep relationships that truly help forge those fond memories of Germany that will stay with us for decades to come.
In fact, this has proven true for me and my family. Each year, I yearn (as I do now) for those quiet moments of connection I’ll have with my wife and children as we very creatively decorate festively-shaped sugar cookies and play a seemingly endless series of board games together; bundling up from head-to-toe and going on silly, playful walks that inevitably devolve into snowball fights; sitting about the fireplace while we take turns reading and acting out portions of the Christmas Story from the Books of Matthew and Luke, Chapters 1-2; finding my heart aglow at the magnificence of the Christmas beauty throughout our home and realizing just how imaginative my family can be; becoming overwhelmed in emotion each time I’m reminded that my kids may fly in soon; and, reflecting solemnly on the most precious and wonderful gift a loving Father could give his creation which we celebrate each Christmas: His Son. Jesus. Born to Mary. Laid in a manger. Honored by both Shepherd and King. He came to die that we all might live.