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Santa Claus brings presents for U.S. soldiers during a Christmas concert at Bagram Air Base on Dec. 25, 2010.
As the familiar song says, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” Each day, I notice another home on my block coming alive with the twinkling of lights and the greening of mantles. And I’m glad for it. The delights of this holiday bring joy like no other to those young and old alike.
But this same season can also be one of the most difficult times of the year for thousands of service members. For those stationed around the world protecting our freedoms–and those in hospitals and rehab centers recovering from war wounds–Christmas can be a time of sadness and loneliness.
During these times, the leadership of our nation’s military work hard to mitigate any painful separation from home and family. Events are organized; special meals are prepared; parties are held. And while all of this good, there is a critical component that ties these resources together: our nation’s chaplains.
Chaplains play a life-sustaining role in the support for our service men and women throughout the year, but particularly at Christmastime. Of course, the chaplain will conduct or arrange services for Christmas Eve and Christmas and prayers will be offered at various military events and functions. But the role of the military chaplain can take many unexpected shapes.
Early in my career, I was providing pastoral care to soldiers at 19 remote sites in Germany. While visiting there one Christmas, I was asked to play Santa at a special celebration for these service members and their families. Knowing I had some costuming to do, I arrived early with my family and then snuck away to don my Santa suit (complete with extra padding).
I waited on the roof for all the kids of our military families to arrive. After some of the troops made stomping noises, the unit commander announced Santa was here. I came tromping down the stairs (not a chimney thankfully) to the thrill of the children there. I carried a sack full of gifts that had been donated and each child got something special.
With my Santa role complete, I slipped upstairs, out of my stuffed red suit and back into the role of chaplain. Then I invited each child to hold a single piece of a manger scene and proceeded to read the story of the birth of Christ from the Bible. The children listened expectantly, in part because they were anxious to add their piece as the story unfolded. The parents, of course, listened in as well. When this Scripture reading was finished and the manger fully assembled, we prayed and sang one verse of “Silent Night.”
It was surprising to me when the soldiers and their families remarked more on the manger stories than the sack full of gifts. Somehow, being so far from everything familiar, hearing this story so simply told, held an even deeper meaning for them. To this day, this remains one of my most cherished Christmas memories.
This Christmas, service members will once again be deployed on land, sea, and in the air. Still others will spend Christmas closer to home but recovering from combat wounds in VA hospitals. The generosity of Americans will provide much-needed assistance to wounded warriors and their families. And especially in this season, chaplains will be sharing the real meaning of Christmas by using every Christian’s best resource: the Bible. This book, the best-selling of all time, can provide hope on Christmas as it does every day.
Whether your loved ones are near or far this Christmas, I hope you’ll make reading the Bible’s Christmas story a part of your celebration this year. As you do, take a moment to remember those who may be reading it alone in a strange country. Pray for our service men and women who are stationed around the world this Christmas and for the chaplains who will work hard to help them celebrate.
Col. Arthur Pace is the American Bible Society’s director of the Armed Service Ministry after serving more than 30 years in the U.S. Army. After taking a position at the Pentagon, Pace’s work included ministry to Sept. 11, 2001 survivors.