Invictus at Christmas

A Christian look at William Ernest Henley’s famous poem, Invictus.

Julie fumbled with the lock of her dorm room. Laying her purse, nursing notebook, deli croissant sandwich, and coffee on the floor in the hall, she finally opened the door. My biology quiz didn’t go well this morning, and my anatomy project is late. At least I’ll get English right. I’ve got 30 minutes before I have to leave for work.

Sitting at her desk a few moments later, Julie began reading the poem her English professor was expecting an analysis of on Monday morning.

Invictus

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley, Britain, 1875

I have always liked Invictus, Julie thought to herself. My mother read it to me when my father left us. I read it to Michelle when she and her boyfriend broke up and she wanted to drive her car off a cliff. It makes me feel strong and independent. Best of all, Invictus is short. Julie read it again and again. Then she opened her notebook computer to type a few lines.

“Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn King” sang a choir outside Julie’s window. She watched the little group, a motley mix of young and old, talented and not so talented. “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled…” Once the tune ended, she chuckled to herself. Why would anyone want a king? How could he bring peace on earth? Kings make war, not peace. And who decides what is sin, and who is a sinner? She thought about the carolers for a few minutes, and about her few forays into church as a child. Misguided bunch, but their singing wasn’t bad.

Julie finished her croissant sandwich and returned to work on her assignment. Her phone buzzed, announcing that a text had arrived. “Ramona is in the hospital. She took a bunch of pills and drank a bunch of whiskey.”

Julie’s face turned white. Not Ramona! She was the most glamorous, gorgeous, toughest, smartest girl in high school. Every teacher loved her, every coach recruited her, and every boy in school would have killed to date her. Every girl wanted to be like her. Ramona had it all, and she knew it.

“I liked her, I envied her, and I followed her” Julie remembered aloud.

There was a knock on Julie’s door. Julie answered it. Her friend Michelle stood outside, her eyes red and puffy with tears. “Michelle, I got your text about Ramona. Are you OK?”

“I just had to walk over. The three of us were best friends in high school. Now, just two years later…” Her words trailed off.

“Do you have any more information?” Julie asked, but Michelle was in no shape to talk. “Give me your phone” she ordered, and took it when there was no reply. Julie scrolled through the messages. She found a voicemail from Ramona’s mother.

“Michelle, this is April. Ramona is in the county hospital. She took a handful of Tylenol and drank a bottle of whiskey early this morning. She has been struggling in college – engineering just isn’t her thing. Two days ago, she found out that she is pregnant. When she told her boyfriend Brandon, you remember him from high school, he broke off their relationship. Ramona’s stepfather and I are at the hospital. Call her soon on her cell phone. She needs a friend.”

Julie dialed April’s number, but noticed the clock on her wall. “1243!” she exclaimed. “I got to be at the nursing home at one to start work.” She hung up, rushed Michelle out of her room, choked down her coffee, changed into her scrubs, grabbed her nursing bag, and ran out the door. I’ll call later.

***

Julie raced down the highway. If I’m late one more time, I might get fired. Then, how could I stay in school?  She thought about Ramona. She certainly is in a black pit now, but her soul doesn’t seem very unconquerable.

Hoping to distract herself, Julie turned on the car radio. “God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay…”

“Let nothing me dismay!” she blurted as the song continued. “One of my best friends is in the hospital, I am late to work, and I have to listen to stupid music on the radio.” Despite her irritation, Julie continued listening. She sat silently until the song ended. I feel bludgeoned and bloody by circumstances, but I am not wincing or crying. Still, there is something soothing, and even encouraging, in that song. She turned off her radio.

Flashing blue lights appeared in Julie’s rear view mirror. She pulled over, furious for getting caught speeding and furious for being late to work. The policeman approached from the driver’s side.

“Do you know what the speed limit is here?”

“45?”

“35” the officer answered. “And you were going 51.”

“Sorry, I just found out that my friend is in the hospital, and I am late for work.” Julie started to cry, hoping for a quick warning and speedy departure. The policeman looked skeptical.

“I’m going to have to give you a ticket. Please hand me your driver’s license, insurance, and registration.”

Julie erupted. “I can’t believe that you are doing this to me! Give a man a little power and he abuses others.”

“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but you were 51 miles per hour in a 35 mile per hour zone.”

“My head is bloody but unbowed” Julie snapped at the officer.

“That’s great, ma’am, but you still have to pay the ticket.”

“Cretin” she whispered to herself.

The two fell into silence – Julie’s sullen and the officer’s confused. Several minutes passed as the officer walked back to his car and checked her plates and her documents. He wrote the ticket, returned to her car, and handed it to her. She snatched it out of his hand. The officer walked back to his patrol car as she sped away. It was 1308.

***

Julie walked into the Happy Horizons nursing home at 1315. Mrs. Applegate, the head nurse, greeted her at the door.

“Glad you could make it, Julie,” she said with an edge. “Cindy has already started getting the medications ready for your patients. Here is the list.” Julie’s heart sank. This has to be the worst day ever. Why couldn’t I have been sick? How am I going to make it until five? Julie forced a smile on to her pretty face, put her long brown hair into a ponytail, and walked into room 103 to see her first patient.

“Hi, Mr. Gebhart. How are you today?” Cindy snuck his pain medicine into some applesauce while Julie distracted him with stories of her day. Then Cindy slipped a bite into his mouth, and Julie rushed another spoonful of applesauce into his mouth to hide the bitter taste. They were a good pair.

Julie helped patients to the bathroom, walked with them, fed them, moved them, and talked to them. The work, the help to others, and the light that came to their aged faces helped Julie to forget her own cares. Her smile became real, her steps grew light, and her eyes regained their sparkle.

Mrs. Applegate watched from the nurses’ station. “Julie is often late, and can be immature, but she is becoming a terrific nurse” the older woman whispered to herself. Nurse Applegate continued typing her notes in the medical record. Writing nursing evaluations wasn’t nearly as rewarding as taking care of patients.

“O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining…” sounded from the activity room at Happy Horizons. Julie’s shift was almost over and her work was done, so she walked slowly towards the music. She sat down next to a wizened woman in a wheelchair. “Long lay the world, in sin and error pining, till He appeared and the soul felt its worth…” The music continued, filling the room, and lifting the spirits of everyone around. A smile broke onto Mrs. Applegate’s face.

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…” Julie listened silently, drinking in the music. “Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.” The choir finished with What Child is This?

What child was this, really? Why do billions of people on earth believe in Him? Why do I feel that I need to know more about Him?

“The choir at Redemption Baptist Church thanks you for inviting us to Happy Horizons, and wishes you a very Merry Christmas” the music minister concluded. “Come by the church for a caroler pot luck tonight at 6” the choir director said to Julie as he walked past.

The woman in the wheelchair next to her looked at Julie. Her face was gray and wrinkled, her back bent, and her skin thin as tissue paper.

Julie didn’t notice. She said quietly:

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

I want to be found unafraid, but I dread becoming like this woman. The menace of the years has taken its toll on her. How much longer can she live? How much longer can Ramona live? How much longer can any of us live? How long do we want to?

Julie sat back and took a deep breath. The last four choir members sang as they walked away, “Long lay the world, in sin and error pining, till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.”

But perhaps the world really has laid long in sin, pining for restoration. My patients here sure want to be restored. And what child is this, really? Is He the one who will help each person’s soul feel its worth?

“Miss, excuse me, miss?” A feeble voice awakened Julie from her thoughts. It was the crooked old woman in the wheelchair, the one that Julie could barely look at. “Would you please wheel me back to my room?”

Julie snapped back into her professional mode. “Of course, ma’am. My name is Julie. What is yours?”

“Harriet Shaker. You know, I was a nurse too.”

“Wow, where did you work?”

“I worked on the med-surg ward at St. Joseph’s hospital here in town for 35 years” Mrs. Shaker replied. “In 1977 I was voted Nurse of the Year by the whole staff.”

“What an honor! I hope that I can do as well myself” Julie answered. “Was that the highlight of your career?”

“Yes, but the highlight of my life was my family. I was married for 57 years and had seven children. Careers are wonderful, but they end. Family never does.”

Julie smiled a little awkwardly. Noticing, Mrs. Shaker shifted her conversational gears and inquired, “How old are your parents?”

“My mom’s name is Pam, and she’s 43. My dad is 45.” Julie was blunt, “He left mom and me when I was ten.”

“I am so sorry,” Harriet returned. “Family breakups heal, but scars remain forever. Do you have brothers and sisters?”

“No. My parents didn’t want kids, and I was an accident. But they didn’t abort me, which was good, I think. But they made sure that I was alone.”

“You poor dear,” Harriet said as she reached out her withered hands to hug Julie. The young nursing student instinctively leaned back, but stopped herself and leaned forward into the hug. Julie had no idea why she was sharing her life troubles with this stranger, but somehow it seemed like the right thing to do. Julie asked “Tell me more.”

Mrs. Shaker continued, “We needed my job to make ends meet, but my husband and my children were my life. My husband Jerry has passed, but my children and grandchildren still are my life.”

“Didn’t you get tired of living for others?” Julie asked.

“First, you live for God. Second, you live for others. Third, maybe, you live for yourself. What else would you live for?” Harriet puzzled.

“Yourself. Your career. Your happiness. Your fame and fortune.” Julie replied. Her mother had always told her to stand on her own two feet, trust no one, and get what she wanted out of the world. “Your father left us” she said, “and I don’t care. We will get along without him…without anyone.”

Invictus flashed in Julie’s mind. “Aren’t you the master of your fate and the captain of your soul?”

Harriet paused for a moment. “In January 1973, I was in my early 30s, and was sick of my life. Jerry sold tools in a hardware store but didn’t make much. I took care of my five children and worked at a local hospital on Saturdays. Jerry was boring, the kids were boring, my job was boring, and I was bored. I wanted the independent, liberated life of a modern woman. I wanted money and travel, dancing and wine, and romance. I was sick of diapers, dishes, dinner, and even sex.

One Saturday I met a handsome doctor on the ward, not much older than me. His sparkling eyes and toothy smile took my breath away. One day I was holding the chart of one of his patients and he touched my hand. I almost melted. No one else was around, and he put his arm around my waist. I trembled as he glanced about, and kissed me.

Soon we were leaving work together. We were both married and had kids, but who cared? I was in love. I rationalized my actions with the philosophy of the day. Personal fulfillment, whatever the cost, was the goal, and free love was the means. I left my family and moved in with my handsome doctor. It was everything I had ever dreamed of. We danced, sang, and drank. He took me to Mexico, Hawaii, and France. Then after three months, he left. I guess he just got bored with me. I never saw or heard from him again.”

“What did your family do?” Julie implored.

“They couldn’t believe that I left, and especially right after Christmas, although Christmas didn’t matter to us much at the time. Our Christmas was all about presents and parties – all I really wanted was to be done with it. Anyway, Jerry was morose. He spent days at home in despair and almost lost his job. Our children were heartbroken. The older ones started failing school and tried never to come home. Everything was wrong for all of us. My work suffered, and I lost my job, so I moved back in with my parents. Jerry tried for months to get me back, but I refused. My 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son rejected me, and only my youngest three – 2, 4 and 6 – wanted me home.”

“How did it end?”

“I yearned for my family, but was too ashamed to tell them. On Easter Sunday, 1973, I went to church. Jerry and the kids were there, sitting on the other side of the sanctuary. The pastor read 1 Corinthians 15, about the sacrifice of Jesus and His resurrection from the dead. Something happened that day which I will never fully understand. I went back to my room at my parents’ house, closed the door, and cried for six hours. Mother brought my old Bible, the one with the dedication from my grandparents. Through my tears I found Christ. On the same day, Jerry did too.

Three weeks later, Jerry asked me to go to lunch. It was really awkward at first, but he just started talking about the kids. One lunch led to another and we began reminiscing about our life together. We all started going to church and sitting together. By Thanksgiving, I had moved back in. We were together again as a family. He had forgiven me…so had the kids. We had the greatest Christmas ever.”

Abandoning my family for a fling was the worst thing I have ever done, but Jesus washed that sin away.

“You asked if I was the captain of my fate, the master of my soul. I tried to be, and you can see how well that went.” Harriet sat back into her wheelchair. “I didn’t need a handsome, rich, young doctor. And I only partially needed a slightly older hardware salesman. I needed someone else, a Savior and Lord, and I found Him…or He found me.”

Julie had heard the gospel before and had rejected it. But this was different. Ramona, her day, her friends, her past, and her worldview, summed up by Invictus, didn’t seem enough anymore. She felt confused.

Julie got up, unlocked the wheels, and pushed Mrs. Harriet Shaker to her room. They hugged as they parted.

***

Michelle read Alice’s text. “Ramona is in the intensive care unit. Her liver has been damaged by the overdose, and her lab tests are rising. We’ll know tomorrow if she will recover or if she will need a liver transplant…if she can get one.”

Michelle, a sociology major, had no clue about medicine and relied on Julie for answers. “What do you think?”

“It doesn’t sound good” Julie suggested.

“Should we visit her?”

“No”, Julie replied. “Ramona went to school in Arizona. Driving would take over 20 hours, and neither of us can pay for a plane ticket.”

The girls sat silently at the table in Julie’s dorm room – desperate for their friend and powerless to help her.

“Shall we pray?” Michelle asked.

“To whom, and why?” answered Julie bitterly. “To whatever gods may be?”

Why did I answer so harshly? Julie thought to herself. Will Jesus be angry? Oh, its no use. I can’t be good enough to be religious.

Julie’s tone softened. “Besides, I don’t know how to pray.” The girls heard a song outside their window.

“Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing over the plains…” the choir sang. Julie recognized them – the group from Redemption Baptist Church.

Julie and Michelle listened until the music ended. “That’s what we need right now…angels,” opined Michelle.

“That’s what Ramona needs” corrected Julie.

The music stopped, and Michelle suggested “Let’s go to church…Redemption Baptist is right down the street.”

“Good idea,” agreed Julie. ““That’s the church whose choir sang at work today! Maybe they can help. Even if they can’t, we can at least get a free dinner.”

The girls put on heavy coats and scarves, locked the door, and walked into the night.

***

Julie and Michelle stepped from the cold dark street into the warm light of the church. They slipped into the back row, hoping to escape notice. Julie was surprised to see the police officer who had pulled her over earlier in the day sitting next to her. He smiled.

“Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright…” the choir sang.

The pastor stood and welcomed the group. Our church choir had a busy afternoon, and we hope this potluck conveys our thanks, both to choir members and guests. Before we eat, we need to remember what Christmas is really about. The pastor opened the Bible sitting on the pulpit and began to read.

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.

(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)

To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.

And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

“Now let us continue the Christmas story.”

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,

Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.

And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judea: for thus it is written by the prophet,

And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.

And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.

When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.

When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.

And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

“And now let us complete the Christmas story. The baby who was born on Christmas grew to adulthood and lived a perfect life. His name was Jesus, and He was called Christ, the Messiah, because He was God’s chosen one. Jesus taught the unlearned, fed the hungry, and healed the sick. He performed many mighty miracles to prove His identify. Wicked and jealous men, religious leaders, had Him executed on trumped up charges in a quick political killing. He died as a sacrifice for the sins of all men and women who had ever lived, or ever would live. But that was not the end. The Apostle Paul writes…”

Christian brothers, I want to tell the Good News to you again. It is the same as I preached to you before. You received it and your faith has been made strong by it. This is what I preached to you. You are saved from the punishment of sin by the Good News if you keep hold of it, unless your faith was worth nothing.

First of all, I taught you what I had received. It was this: Christ died for our sins as the Holy Writings said He would. Christ was buried. He was raised from the dead three days later as the Holy Writings said He would.

Julie concentrated intensely on every word. Something was different about this place, and something was stirring in her soul. The police officer smiled at her again, and Julie felt no anger. Instead, she felt a spirit that she had never known before. What does this mean, and what about Invictus?

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.

“Miss, would you and your friend like to join my family and I for dinner?”

Roused from her thoughts, Julie recognized the smiling face of the policeman who had pulled her over earlier.

“We brought lasagna with Italian bread and a Caesar salad” the man continued, “and my wife is a fantastic cook.”

Julie hesitated but Michelle answered for them both. “Sure.”

The group found a table, and Julie and the policeman began to talk while the others stood in line for dinner.

“What did the pastor mean when he said that ‘Jesus died for the sins of men, and rose again?’” For the next hour, Julie and the policeman had one of the most intense conversations of their lives, while the others had a delightful chat. Finally, it was time to go.

Michelle and Julie stepped out of the church, back into the cold December evening to walk the half-mile back to school. Michelle jabbered on, but Julie’s mind was full of thoughts.

My scroll of punishments, my sin, is charged with many, many, punishments. But Jesus took them. He paid the price. Jesus’ paid the price for Ramona’s pride, and later her despair. He paid the price for Harriet’s adultery, and for Alice, Pam’s, and Michelle’s iniquities. Jesus took the wickedness of the whole world on Himself. His blood washed away forever the blackness of their sins.

Maybe Invictus should end like this:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
Jesus Christ is the master of my fate:
Jesus Christ is the captain of my soul.

 

 

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