The Greatest Gift
This article was written by my mom, Elaine Nielsen. It was published in Western Outlook, a publication in North Platte, Nebraska, in December of 1975.
Thanks to my aunt MaryAnne Anderberg for bringing it to my attention.
"It was the worst of times. It was the best of times..." With these memorable lines Charles Dickens began his "Tale of Two Cities". They seem strangely appropriate somehow to our own time. So many are anxious to tell you that these are the worst of times. They point to the soaring crime rate, the economy that reels between recession and inflation, famine for parts of the world, cruelty and violence nearly everywhere, lies and treachery, shrinking resources, an environment despoiled, and always the threat of war in a dozen parts of the world.
And yet, many times have surely been worse than this. Not to invoke ancient history: World War I, The Great Depression of the Thirties, World War II, and the recent Viet Nam decade of this particular century were all probably worse times than this. The current wave of nostalgia for a simpler time in the past is one of the silliest delusions this nation has indulged itself in for quite some while. What is simple about a polio epidemic? Have we forgotten how recently we had no defense for our children against this dread and crippling disease? Or what is uncomplicated about a kerosene lamp? If you think it quaint, nostalgic, and cozy I suspect that you have never tried to read at night by such a light, and I know that you've never had to fill it and wash the chimney each day.
Nor was there anything simple or uncomplicated about packing all of the water a household used from the pump in the yard, or heating it upon a wood and coal fire in the kitchen stove. (You were constantly hauling the fuel in and the ashes out.) And anyone who thinks an outdoor privy is quaint or picturesque has had no immediate experience with that aspect of the "simpler" life!
In truth many of the aforementioned problems are of our own making, and for all of them we have the technology and knowledge at hand to remedy or completely solve them. For such problems as violence, lies and treachery, we have only to restore and mend the foundations of our crumbling civilization and these will fade. This would be difficult and would involve unselfishness, self-denial, and self discipline, but it can be done. We need only cease wringing our hands and get to work.
Actually the trouble of this time seems to be a malady of the spirit, a faltering of the will. Despair has become a poisonous vapor lurking in the shadows and low places that insidiously destroys us without our conscious knowledge of it. It seems this Christmastide that we have a very great need for the Greatest Gift. It is the hope that has unfailingly counteracted despair now these two thousand years whenever humanity has allowed it do so.
Consider the coming of the Greatest Gift. Now there was the worst of times! This Gift had been promised by God for more than two thousand years to a chosen people, the Israelites. These people were now one thousand years beyond their Golden Age and the much lauded and acclaimed ruler of that era, King David. It had been nine hundred years or so since their kingdom had been divided, and more than seven hundred years since the Northern Kingdom had fallen to the Assyrians.
Although the smaller southern kingdom of Judah managed to exist until 586 B.C., at that time it, too, was conquered, and most of its citizens carried into exile. A remnant of these managed eventually to return to Judah in 516 B.C. Nearly one hundred years later these succeeded in rebuilding the temple and the walls of Jerusalem. A century after that Alexander the Great swept through their territory and they lived again in persecution and suffering. After that period under the leadership of the Maccabees they rebelled and for a brief century they knew freedom and peace. In 63 B.C. they were conquered again, this time by Rome.
Rome sent King Herod to govern the province of Judea and he proved to be an exceedingly cruel and ruthless tyrant, taxing, oppressing, and exploiting his Jewish subjects unmercifully. A time of utter despair, it was truly the worst of times.
And when in Bethlehem of this tiny country of Judea about the year 7 B.C. (a monk fouled up the calendar some five hundred years hence) a child was born to a poor young mother, who wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no room for her and her husband to stay in the inn.
And so came, "in the fullness of time", the Greatest Gift. The child was called Emmanuel, which means "God with us", and Jesus, because as the Matthew Gospel records, "He shall save His people from their sins." The worst of times became the best of times.
For nearly two thousand years now He has brought faith, hope and love to those of good will, wherever they dwell upon this earth, and the ancient festival of the winter solstice has long since become the time when we celebrate the coming of the Greatest Gift, when "God so loved the world that He gave his only Son..."
It is Christmastide again. May you, too, receive the Greatest Gift and know the love and joy that overcomes the world and transforms the worst of times into the best of times. Joyeux Noel. Feliz Navidad.