Breathing Deeply Before Christmas

Steal away, steal away

Steal away to Jesus

Steal away, steal away home

I ain’t got long to stay here


Steal Away”—the African American spiritual from the era of slavery in the United States—has been beckoning me in the midst of the mad rush leading up to Christmas. Over and above the season’s bright wrapping paper and tinny pop-star carols, beyond the cheesy (sorry, parents) sight of girls dressed in Mrs. Claus faux red velvet frocks and boys in Santa-Claus-gone-casual green cable-knit sweaters, the simplicity of this spiritual calls: “Steal away to Jesus.”


Admittedly, it may be that I am misappropriating the deep meanings of “Steal Away” for my own need for escape from our commercial Christmas traditions. “Steal Away” is a spiritual rich with double meanings. It was a secret call to steal away in the night for planning meetings of the Underground Railroad…Nat Turner, among others, would sing “Steal Away” to give the call for escape to freedom in the North. It was also a song of strength and hope for those who could not or had not yet escaped slavery…“Though they beat and chain your body, let your soul steal away in confidence that they will never own your spirit.” Above all, “Steal Away” claimed an ultimate faith in Jesus who was freeing—if not in this life, then certainly in the next.


Steal away, steal away

Steal away to Jesus

Steal away, steal away home

I ain’t got long to stay here


The meaning of any song shifts when you take it out of context; singing “Steal Away” at Christmastime seems almost a trivial application of an Underground Railroad spiritual. But I greatly appreciate how the text carries me and encourages me through the hubbub of Christmas, and I am reflecting on how best to “steal away” from holiday chaos to contemplate the everyday miracle of an unexpected child who was born 2000 years ago.


Short of taking a complete hiatus from the hyper pre-Christmas season (known in the church as “Advent” and known in secular America as “It’s almost Christmas!”), this year I’m viewing the twelve days after Christmas—from December 25 to Epiphany on January 6—as an ideal time for stealing away. In my home, I am fortunate that the Twelve Days of Christmas include a vacation from work and a winter break from school. During those twelve days, the frantic bustle leading up to Christmas dissipates and a quiet contentedness settles in. The busyness of church life and work pauses oh-so-briefly, for a brief winter moment, before the business of annual church budgets and the upcoming preparations for Lent begins.


So this year I plan to “steal away to Jesus” between Christmas and Epiphany. Steal away in prayer. Steal away in the early mornings before my kids wake, sitting in my grandfather’s rocking chair with a hot mug of tea, wrapped in the warmth of my prayer shawl. Steal away with a few thought-provoking, life-reflecting books to gain new perspectives on faith and the divine, and to nurture new insights for my work with words and the Word. (On my to-read list: Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season and Julia O’Brien’s Challenging Prophetic Metaphor.)


Whatever your circumstances and plans in this holiday season, may you create opportunities to steal away to Jesus and to nurture the freedom for faith-full living in the new year. Blessings.


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-O5hz5KnSdc

(Mahalia Jackson and Nat King Cole sing “Steal Away”)