The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me: he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” (Isaiah 61:1-3a)
And so I am remembering now one of the first Christmases I served as a pastor. I was young, of course, all of 28 years old and I found myself not quite settled into the role or even into my life as an adult. To be honest, I was struggling then with what to do with holidays where I had to work and couldn’t just ‘go home’ to where Christmas had always been provided for me, and so it was I found myself a little bit at loose ends … And while it’s no excuse, I was tired, for this was, at least in that setting, still in that time, when Advent was filled with one pre-Christmas gathering after another with every committee, every women’s circle, every choir, expecting the assistant pastor to show up — an expectation I did my best to fulfill. It so happened that Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday that year. I had participated in three worship services that morning and was looking ahead to several more that night and another one on Christmas Day. It was Christmas Eve a little after noon and I was letting myself in through the back door of the parsonage to hear the phone ringing. I went to pick it up and was told that Glenn, a member of our congregation, was dying… his wife Edna was with him… they couldn’t reach the Senior Pastor (in that age before cell phones) and would I please come.
And so I did… trudging back out into the late December chill, I went, carrying all of my weariness with me. I made my way past the front desk at the nursing home and paused to listen to the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” being played on the trumpet by another local pastor who was leading the service that afternoon
The strains of that trumpet followed me as I made my way down the hall and entered Glenn’s darkened room. Edna sat next to him, stroking his hand, watching him breathe. I quietly sat next to her and together we listened to his labored breathing until he didn’t any more. I hope that I prayed with her… I’m certain I must have, but it’s been so long now that I don’t recall… After a time then, Edna gathered herself up and headed for home. I followed her in my own car and went with her into her apartment which bore no signs of Christmas. Rather, a pile of laundry and unopened mail sat on the kitchen table — clearly her whole heart had been at Glenn’s bedside in that nursing home during those weeks which would normally have been devoted to Advent Preparation. She called a nephew and we sat together until he arrived. When he came he sat beside her, too, and he said to her then, “Aunt Edna, Christmas Eve is just another day.” He meant to comfort her, I know he did. He wanted all her future Christmas Eves not to be tainted by this. As if she could ever forget.
After a time then I made my way home. It was a while yet before I had to head back to church and so I took a moment to call my mom. I dialed the phone, pretending even to myself that I was calling to see if she needed anything for our family gathering the next day. Really, I expect I just needed the sound of her voice then.
And so I told her about my day. Perhaps I sounded sad; I expect there was an edge of complaint in my tone for this was not how I had pictured Christmas at all. When I was finished she very quietly said to me, “But Janet, don’t you think this is what Christmas Eve is for?”
Three things keep returning to me these many years later.
- The sound of that trumpet playing “O Come, O Come Immanuel” … and I wonder about how music shapes, informs, and nurtures our understandings of such days… Surely the pastor playing that day would have no idea that 22 years later I would still remember. And I wonder at how the small things we do are recalled by others. How with our gifts we shape one another’s journeys.
- Edna’s nephew’s comment… “Aunt Edna, Christmas Eve is just another day.” I didn’t argue with him then, but I’ve been shaping my response ever since. I understand his intent, but I believe he was so very wrong. What do you think? What would you say to that?
- And of course, my mother’s gentle prodding, “But, Janet, don’t you think this is what Christmas Eve is for?” She didn’t use the words of the prophet, Isaiah then, but that was surely the point of her question…. We who follow the Suffering Servant are also called to comfort those who mourn. Even on Christmas. Perhaps especially on Christmas as we worship the One who was sent with that Promise of comfort for all the world. And so yes, I knew she was right, of course, and in that moment I began to come to a deeper understanding of what it is to follow Jesus every day in perhaps unexpected ways… What do you think? Was her question one of judgment or gift or both? What do you think Christmas Eve is for? What do the words of the Prophet Isaiah call us to?