We were talking earlier about our favorite Christmas songs. I said that “The Little Drummer Boy” was mine. Barb contributed a really wonderful column by Christian Century editor John M. Buchanan on the subject, and then I just found this in my files…

HOMILY “Our Finest Gifts We Bring” Rev. Victoria Weinstein
Christmas Eve 2004

I always figured The Little Drummer Boy was from a Bible story. He seems to belong there, along with the angels appearing to Mary, and the shepherds quaking in the field, and the three wise men making their majestic way across the desert bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh. The first time I read the different versions of Jesus’ birth in the Bible, I became very perplexed, and I looked in vain for the story about the kid with the drum.

Well, he’s not in there.

The entire story came from the mind of Miss Katherine Davis, who said she was lying down to take a nap when the whole song came to her as though dictated from above. And then in 1968, as some of you may know, the Rankin-Bass animating team created a 25-minute long story version of the little drummer boy. If you have seen it, raise your hand. It’s claymation, from the same people who did “Rudolph the Red-Noses Reindeer” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

In the story as it is told by Rankin-Bass, the little drummer boy, named Aaron, is angry and bitter. He is a little desert-dwelling boy whose happy childhood is ended when his home is burned and his parents murdered by a gang of marauding bandits. As he travels the land alone with his lamb, Baba, and his donkey, he is kidnapped by a comic villain –who is like a cross between Ali Baba and a really greasy Hollywood agent — and he is forced to entertain people by playing on his drum. Aaron refuses to smile and a smile is painted on his face. It is an image that always haunted me.

So the story begins tragically. If you’ve ever seen it you might agree with me that the little drummer boy, unlike Frosty the Snowman or Rudolph the red-nosed Reindeer, or the Grinch, or the Heat Miser – is particularly emotionally powerful as a Christmas story because unlike any of those other characters, he is a human being. And he is in a lot of pain; a pain that you and I can relate to at any age.

In the special, as Aaron is working his way across the desert — being dragged, really – three very dignified and kindly kings are making their way across the same desert. They are the three magi of “we three kings of orient are” fame, whose story does appear in the Bible – in the gospel of Matthew as you heard earlier. We don’t know whether or not the three magi are happy or in pain. Actually, we don’t know anything of their personal stories. We only know that they are sages, wise ones who know enough to drop everything and to follow a miraculous star when it appears in the night sky. Their knowledge of astrology informs them that the star has great significance, and they must make their way to the place it most directly shines upon.

So the four figures – the three kings and one little boy — are making their way toward Bethlehem: three are going on purpose, and one is heading there very much against his will, bearing an angry, broken heart under his painted-on smile.

And so you and I have come again across the same desert as we do every year at this time. Some are content and centered, as distinguished as the three wise men, having finished your shopping, filed your tax receipts for 2004, put the house in order, and recharged the batteries for the digital camera. Your smiles tonight are real. You could just as well have stayed home and quietly read a book or listened to some music, or dozed in front of the fire. But you managed to remember, in the midst of all the hoopla of the season, that the star of wonder beckons all of us to come to the manger tonight. You humbly acknowledge, no matter how “together” your life is, that what the baby came to teach and to do on the earth is not done, and there are no men and women to accomplish it but us. You feel a sense of conscientious obligation to this world, and so you have come to rededicate yourself to what that child grew up and asked of you, and of all of us: that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. That we would bring about the kingdom of heaven by living according to the law of love– God’s highest law.

You recognize, with humility and awe, that to be obedient to this higher calling is what makes life meaningful. Like the three magi, you will bring your utmost best to this rich mystery, and bow to it. The gold and frankincense and myrrh you bring are gifts of yourself: your reverence, your love of goodness, justice and righteousness, your sincere attempts to grow in faith and understanding, your compassion for others. All your acts of caring, which are eminently more valuable than anything you could possibly put under the tree or in a stocking.

But others approach the manger tonight much like Aaron the Drummer Boy, feeling, in the words of the song, like “a poor boy, too” who have no gifts to bring. Your lives are not so together. Perhaps you wear a smile that feels painted on. You come hurting, limping in spirit. But you have shown up. You too feel that that star must mean something, and you have come, feeling empty-handed, to stand in its glow for a moment, to contemplate what it might all mean. And here is how Christmas answers you. Christmas says, “You may have stumbled your way across that desert with nothing in your pocket but a dry cleaning ticket. It doesn’t matter. You are a gift of life itself, and we’re glad you got here however you got here. This baby whom you have come to see represents a love for you that is unconditional and absolute. And what this baby knows, and God knows, is that what you have to bring, if given out of love and reverence, is precious, and sacred.”

We come before the manger tonight as one people, all the same, really, all sharing the same need to live for something greater than ourselves, all sharing the same joy for the ways the unquenchable spirit of love keeps being born into our world again and again. Our finest gifts we bring… rumpumpumpum… rumpumpumpum….rumpumpumpum. There is no need for gold, frankincense or myrrh, as nice as they are. And there is no need for any drum but the beating of your heart. When you have given every beating of that heart over to that baby’s commandment that we love one another, and that we live not for things but for each other, you may come empty-handed to the manger, but you will still have brought the finest gift of all.

little drummer boy

Advice To a Pastor On Her First Christmas Eve

Get to the church early. Attend to as many details as possible, with as big a smile on your face as is genuinely possible, and spread good cheer. You are making magic tonight, but don’t rely on God or Santa Claus to take care of the details. Make sure that you and your worship aids know when the lights go down during “Silent Night.” Give the participants an opportunity to rehearse. Print your benediction in big enough font so that you can read it by candlelight.

Don’t drone in the pulpit. You are not a history professor explaining events of long ago. You are a person of faith, sharing miracles that live on today in every act of love and mercy. Don’t explain faith; give them your faith. Every reading should be dynamic enough to make people forget that they’ve heard this story 100 times before.

Sing all the carols with all your heart.

Eat some protein before the service and keep a big glass of water in the pulpit (and a lozenge, too). Take a walk today and breathe deep. You’re going to need a big voice later, so breathe way down into your diaphragm, nice and easy. If you have a nervous stomach, a bowl of soup and half an Imodium might be a good idea.

Let nothing you dismay, even screaming babies. If you truly can’t hear yourself think (or speak), it’s fine to pause and to look with kindly concern at the parents of screamers. Ushers should be instructed to approach these poor, benumbed souls with an invitation to the crying room, “because your baby seems to be having such a tough time.” If the parents demur, at least you’ve taken a moment to clear your head so you can coherently continue.

Remember this:

Long lay the world in sin and error pining
‘Til he appeared and the soul felt its worth.

This is why I celebrate Christmas. Find your deepest, most personal reason to celebrate Christmas and bring it with you full force tonight. If you do that, not much else can go amiss. I promise.

God bless us, every one.