I have shared this story of this particular Christmas Eve before in many times and places. For some reason, though, I am carrying it especially close this time around. Indeed, I have held this memory for so many seasons now that the edges of it are becoming blurry. Even so, there are pieces which stand out still from my first one serving as a pastor:
Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday that year. This meant, of course, that all the regular week-end services preceded the special ones for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. It had been a busy season, as one might expect, and I had no experience yet for pacing myself.
I walked in the back door of the parsonage at a little after noon. I was hoping for a quiet couple of hours before heading back for the first of four services, but as one might expect, the phone on the wall was ringing. It was someone from a local nursing home, asking me to come as one of ours was dying then.
They had tried to reach the senior pastor first, but in the age before cell phones he was not near a phone which was tethered to a wall. Probably they had tried to reach our visitation pastor as well, but he was only part time and at his other home for the holiday by then. In the end, they called me.
And so it was I set aside whatever other plans I had and headed back out into that December early afternoon and drove across town.
Here is where the memories blur for me.
- I recall walking through the front door and being greeted by the sounds of another leading worship there and playing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” on his trumpet. Indeed, I well remember that yearning sound following me down the hallway, accompanying me as I went.
- I remember walking into Glenn’s room to find his wife, Edna, standing at his bedside. They had been married more than sixty years. They had no children. She was alone with him.
- His breathing was ragged by then, stopping and starting. Her grief was palpable.
- We shared a prayer. Soon after he died. And Edna gathered up her things to head for home.
- I offered to follow her there and so I did.
When we walked through the front door it was obvious that Edna’s heart had not been there in days, if not weeks. Laundry was waiting to be folded on the table. The mail lay unopened on the counter. Yesterday’s dishes were still in the sink. More than this, there was no sign of Christmas there. No wreath on the door. No tree, no lights, nothing.
Edna took of her coat and sat down. I did the same and sat opposite her. Before long there was a knock at the door, for her nephew had arrived.
Here, too, I don’t recall much, except that he sat down next to her and taking her hand, trying to comfort her he said, “Aunt Edna, Christmas Eve is just another day.”
Without a doubt, he brought all he had in this simple assurance, wanting somehow to make it better. Indeed, it was enough, certainly, that he came at all. I imagine she remembered that long after she forgot anything he said. Even so, I found I wanted to argue with him for we do not believe that “Christmas Eve is just another day.” I stayed quiet though. I’m grateful that I did.
And yet, of course, it is, it was, wasn’t it? For all of my wanting to offer the opposite, Christmas Eve was just another day…
- It was just another day when Joseph and Mary set out for Bethlehem, at the behest of forces in this world much larger than themselves.
- It was just another day when they discovered that the town of Bethlehem was overflowing with others like themselves… perhaps some in the same but still so very different circumstances from their own…
- It was just another day when labor began, when this child was born, when Mary wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger and Mary and Joseph took turns holding this tiny one close…
It was just another day when angels sand and shepherds ran and shepherds told…
- It was just another day when Mary took it all in and pondered, no doubt for the rest of her life…
Just another day.
So it was that Christmas Eve so long ago I had to leave that one who grieved.
I made my way back to my own home and picked up the phone to call my folks to check in.
I told my mother about that afternoon. Perhaps she heard some of the melancholy in my voice as I tried to make sense of it all. It was then that she gently said to me,
“But Janet, where else would you be, where else should you be on Christmas Eve?”
And that afternoon coupled with the wisdom of her words has stayed with me ever since.
- For yes, it was for such as this and these that angels sang and shepherds ran and told.
- It was for this and these that a child was born to an unlikely couple in an out of the way town.
- It was for this and these that the child was named Jesus.
- It was for this and for these that the child named Jesus would grow into one who would heal the sick, feed the hungry, challenge the powers which oppressed and denied..
- It was for this and for these that another ordinary day, a Friday, would always be called Good…
- It was for this and for these that through this one all that brings suffering and death and the lonely weeping which follows would be defeated and all of our “just another days” might hold signs of Resurrection Hope..
So where else should I be, where else should we be except close to those for whom the news of this birth makes all the difference? Never mind that in this most extraordinary year, I cannot, we cannot do this as we always did — certainly not as I did with abandon those 32 Christmas Eves ago. God’s heart is still with those who suffer and grieve and fear this year. Perhaps this time more than ever:
With each and all of you and with each and everyone you think of now.
Indeed, God’s heart is so very close to all of these. Even when we cannot be. No doubt, especially when we cannot.
For the Incarnation, God coming to us, happened not just once but happens again and again.
- As it happened in an unexpected time and place so long ago, what is to keep it from happening here?
- And won’t it hold more meaning this time than ever before?
- Won’t it be more precious when it seems we need it most of all?
I do not know where or how this will be so for you, but I pray that the Coming One, comes again to you this year.
And oh, may that day, that time, that place that ‘any other day’ be broken wide open for you as the Holy breaks in.
As Jesus is born in you, for you, and for all this hurting world once again.
- I offer this now a few days before a Christmas Eve which will look like no other in my memory. And yet, the promise is that Jesus still comes. As Jesus always did, always does to those who need his coming most of all. How do you find yourself watching and waiting for Jesus this year?
- In a time when many need to keep safe distance, what might it mean to be signs of the incarnation for others in 2020? I wonder who or what will be that for you.
- I am wondering, do you also hold memories which you carry because they taught you the meaning of Christmas? What comes to mind for you?