December   24, 2002
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Christmas Eve 2002

Do You See What I See?

Just a few weeks ago the Danbury paper had front page news about the death of two men who had lived long lives and contributed wonderful works of art to our community.

The one we knew best was Woldemar Neufeld whose paintings and prints of New Milford were so much a part of life here. This church never looked better than when Woldemar painted it. He generously contributed a graphic of our steeple to the fundraising effort to restore it back in 1993, and anyone fortunate enough to have a steeple pin has a nice example of Woldemar’s work.

The other artist was less known here, but his work would ring familiar in the ears of people around the world. He was Noel Regney, of Danbury, who wrote the words to the Christmas standard, Do You Hear What I Hear? The song was written in a time of impending war, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and it was written, in Mr. Regney’s own words, as a “prayer for peace.” In the shadow of war the artist encourages us to have eyes for the signs of hope and ears for the songs of faith.

The artist is someone whose vision and hearing are acutely attuned to finding beauty and meaning in the world, and perhaps it is no accident that these two artists both faced very difficult circumstances in their journey to adulthood.

Woldemar Neufeld’s family was originally from Germany, but they had migrated to the Ukraine because of religious persecution. His father was a successful engineer and industrialist, but also a victim of the Russian Revolution, executed by the Communists in 1920. His mother remarried and the family left everything behind in a move to Canada when Woldemar was 15.

Noel Regney was thirteen years younger than Woldemar, so his time of testing came later. Born in Strasbourg, France, he studied music in Strasbourg, Salzburg and Paris, but all this was ended by the Second World War. When the Germans took over France, Mr. Regney was conscripted into the Nazi army. He was shot after leading his platoon intentionally toward a group of French partisans, and later deserted the German side and joined the French resistance.

After the war he worked in radio and nightclubs, and made his way to the United States in 1952. He married and worked as a composing team with his wife, and together they wrote a number of songs which were quite popular. “Do You Hear What I Hear” is certainly the best known of all, and the message from those tense days of 1962 seems especially appropriate as stand once again with the clouds of war gathering on the horizon.

It is essentially a deeply religious question - do you see what I see; do you hear what I hear. It echoes the words of Jesus when he answered a question from the disciples about his preaching in parables: Matthew 13:10-16 Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven., but to them it has not been given. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.

The prophet, the artist, the visionary, they share with us a glimpse of something that is present in our world, but too easily missed; something of great value, but too easily overlooked.

For example, one of the wonderful series that Woldemar Neufeld painted was the bridges of the Housatonic - 65 works all together of the 65 bridges that span the river from the source above Pittsfield Mass down to the mouth at Strattford Connecticut. Now all of these bridges were not in the best repair, some in fact were simply derelict, even eyesores; but in Woldemar’s eyes there was beauty there, and through his art he made that beauty accessible to a wide audience. Everyone who viewed his paintings looked at those bridges with new eyes - eyes that could see splendor instead of rust.

If you think of Noel Regney’s song, you have to wonder how many people at the time of the birth of Christ saw the star of the nativity but did not ntoice. There it was, in plain sight, high up in the sky - it must have been visible to all. But who had the eyes to see it as a sign of a new era - the dawn of righteousness? Why was there only one small group of sages who thought it was worth the journey to discover what the star signified?

The star signified the birth of one whose eyes saw deep into the heart of humanity, whose ears were wide open to the word of God, whose canvas was his own life and the joys and sorrows of those around him, whose creation was a community of followers, whose medium was the message, who spoke with authority, who judged with mercy, who healed with kindness, who suffered without complaint, who died and was raised to life, the first-born of God’s new creation, the hope of life eternal for all humanity.

What did the babe born this night on Bethlehem’s plain grow to see in this world of ours? What vision of holiness did he make accessible to a world wide audience - what new eyes does he give to those who see the works he wrought.

He grew up in a world not unlike our own, where some were rich and most were poor, where some were glorified and most obscure, where many were satisfied but some heartbroken, where the blessing of God was seen resting on the shoulders of those who were strong and mighty, well-off and respected, those who could assert their place in the world and were not feeling estranged or out of place because of illness, loss, or grief.

Jesus had a vision that was different. When he observed the conditions of life; he saw the signs of God’s presence where others only saw signs of God’s absence. Where some could only see disease, his touch was for healing, where some could only see condemnation, his actions counted for mercy, where some could only see a curse, he spoke a word of blessing.

His creative vision, artistic and prophetic, was powerfully expressed in his most famous words:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

We know that difficult circumstances on our journey will test us and challenge our faith - but these same circumstances offer us a vision that looks more deeply into the heart of things. The work of God in Christ gives us access to beauty and meaning, hope and light in the darkness.

May the Lord grant us the ears to hear this message of hope and the eyes to see the light of God’s presence in our darkest moments this Christmas and always.

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