‘Qoheleth’ is the narrator of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. This Hebrew name is often translated ‘Teacher’ or ‘Preacher’, and originally referred to someone who gathered a congregation together in order to speak to them. His most famous catchphrase was ‘Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!’
from 'Christmas Stories'
It was Christmas; and not just any Christmas, but a very special one. Everyone was busy. The angels had been rehearsing, and could hardly wait for their big moment. Months before, Caesar Augustus had been prompted to announce a census within the Roman Empire; Mary and Joseph had just arrived in Bethlehem; and even the wise men were on their way. The angels in charge of the sky were slowly moving the stars into position, and those in charge of the weather were busy arranging for ‘a clear night over Bethlehem’. It would make it a bit colder, but it would hardly do for Gabriel to announce the coming of the Saviour against a cloudy background; or for the wise men to miss their way due to fog. In short, heaven was a very busy place.
All except for a little group of punctuation marks. These were lying dotted across the landscape feeling very sorry for themselves. Some were being trampled into the ground; others were just quietly ignored. One or two were caring for a badly wounded infinitive. In the end they came together in a rather ungrammatical muddle and decided to make a complaint to the ruler of the universe, the Lord God Almighty himself.
Feeling somewhat nervous, they looked up at the throne and said, ‘Lord God, everyone is so busy that they are ignoring us even more than usual. We know that we are only small, but is there a job for us to do this Christmas?’
And the Lord God, who loved to make use of the little things within his creation, thought for a moment, and then said, ‘Yes; I do still have a job for each one of you to do; so important, and so difficult, that for as long as the world lasts your task will still not be completed. I desire that you so work within the hearts and minds of the people of earth that they will be willing to receive my own Christmas present to them.’
The punctuation marks looked at one another, rather puzzled; but the Lord God continued. ‘First, I’m going to give the hardest task to the smallest of you—the full stop.’
He stooped down to where the full-stop was standing; or perhaps sitting, for it wasn’t easy to tell. And the Lord God said, ‘People are always in a hurry. Make them stop. ‘Stop’, that is, not ‘shop’; for there will come a time when people will confuse the two. Encourage people to come to a halt. So many of my people are frantically moving from one task to another, always preoccupied by a list of unfinished jobs, scared of silence, and afraid of having nothing to do, with a built-in list of excuses as to why they can’t possibly stop right now. Tell them that I created them, that I love them, that I want to give them rest. Tell them that I made them to be friends with me, not workaholics. Help them to know that they are loved for who they are, not for what they do. Make them stop for long enough to receive my Christmas gift of peace.’
Then he turned to the question-mark. ‘And your task is almost as hard; for your job is to make people think. Oh, people think that they’re thinking, when all they’re doing is rearranging the superficialities of life. Help people to think profoundly, deeply. Get inside their hearts; force them to ask the really big questions, the eternal questions, the questions that probe beneath the surface and get to the heart of things. In all my children I’ve planted deep down the question ‘why?’; often the seeds I have carefully sown have been uprooted, or deprived of nourishment. Question-mark, make people think, so that they may receive my gift of wisdom.’
And then the Lord God saw a tall exclamation-mark standing at the back. ‘Exclamation-mark, there’s a job for you too. Your task is to renew the sense of wonder in the hearts of my people. Surprise them by the beauty of the world around them; restore to them a sense of awe. Take them out of themselves; for there is much in my creation that they have looked at a thousand times but never seen, and in the far future things will be more wonderful still, for one day I will make all things new! And they can’t even begin to imagine what I am planning for each of them! Exclamation mark; save my people from the despair of boredom; go and prepare their hearts to receive my gift of joy.’
And then the Lord God saw a huddle of commas, colons, semi-colons and hyphens gathered at the front, wondering if there was any task left for them to do. And he said to them, ‘In the story of people’s lives, there are all sorts of small turning points that they need to take; but they rarely slow down enough to notice. Bring to people’s attention the fact that one phrase of their lives is finishing, and another about to start. Make sure that they pause long enough at Christmas to change direction. Some need more radical change than others, and that is why there are so many of you, each with a different skill; but use your abilities wisely and help people to change direction so as to follow more closely in my footsteps; for I desire that my people walk a path of faithfulness, that they may receive the gift of a crown of life.’
Finally the Lord God looked up and noticed a couple of quotation marks and an apostrophe hanging in the air like helium balloons. ‘Apostrophe,’ he called out. ‘I know that people often forget you, or use you in the wrong places, but it’s (with an apostrophe) your task to make Christmas personal. Attach my Christmas gift to each person’s name—use the help of your friend the letter ‘s’ when necessary—so that they may know that I have a special, unique gift for each one of them.’
And then he turned to the quotation marks and said, ‘And your task is to remind people that I’m speaking to them. They hear so many voices saying so many different things, and so much of what they hear is trivial. Help them to listen to words that really matter. Surround my words with your presence, so that they do not get drowned out or easily forgotten. For above all I desire that this Christmas they may hear my words and receive the gift of my son.’
And the punctuation marks all said, ‘Lord, you know that we can’t do much on our own. What we need are words. Who will provide the words?’
And the Lord God said, ‘I will provide the words; indeed, I have already sent many words to those with ears to hear. But this Christmas, I am giving the world more than words. Look down; did you not see Joseph helping Mary into a cattle shed? Do you not know that this Christmas I am not sending my words, but my Word, the Word who spoke all of creation into being, the Word who is also my Son? Look down, and see: for the Word has become flesh; my son is lying in a manger. One day he will also lie in a tomb; and then I will give you a greater task. But go now, and remind people of all that you have seen and heard.’
© Richard Johnson 2004
[ << Return to Extracts Page ]