As we approach another Christmas Eve, I find myself remembering now one of the first Christmases I served as a pastor. I was still young, of course, and I confess 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 could not 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: trying to figure out how to make new traditions which worked for my new life, but unable to come up with the time or the energy to do so in any meaningful way. And while it is no excuse, on that late December day, I was just plain tired. For December had been 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 had done my best to meet.
Well, it so happened that December 24th 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 just after noon and as I let myself in through the back door of the parsonage I could 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 the local Brethren pastor who was leading the service that afternoon. The strains of that trumpet followed me as I made my way down the hall and found my way to 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 the room went quiet. I hope that I prayed with her, with him. 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. Instead, a pile of unfolded 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 when the rest of the world’s energy had gone towards festive preparation. She called a nephew and we sat together quietly 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.” Oh, 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 possibly ever pass another December 24th and not remember.
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 mother. 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. More than that, I imagine 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?” Indeed, for you and I who pray and singing for the coming of Emmanuel, God With Us —- isn’t that precisely what Christmas Eve is for?
As you can tell, her question has stayed with me these many years. Indeed, as I hear again the story of a child born in an out of the way place to unlikely parents. As I remember the truth that God’s Own Son was born not to riches, but to poverty. As I recall that those who first heard the news of Jesus’ birth were lowly shepherds. And yes, as I remember that Christmas was and is about Emnanuel, God coming to us in his own Son, I am renewed in my understanding that for those of us who follow him, we should not be surprised to discover him now in such places, too. Even on Christmas Eve. Perhaps especially on Christmas Eve. In places like Bethlehem. Or a lonely nursing home. Or a small apartment where there was no time or will to decorate for Christmas. In places where grief hangs heavy and hope may be hard to find. With and among those who are most hungry for the good news of God With Us. Even here. Even now. So yes, spending part of my Christmas Eve watching an old man breathe his last among us here and accompanying his wife home, may in fact be the most fitting way to spend Christmas. Oh yes, I do expect that such as that is precisely what Christmas Eve is for…
- I kept silent that afternoon when her nephew said, “Aunt Edna, Christmas Eve is just another day.” No, I did not argue with him then, but I have been shaping my response ever since. Even understanding his kind intent, I do believe he was so very wrong. What do you think? What would you say to that?
- Have you ever spent Christmas in an unexpected way? How was it in keeping with the first Christmas?
- What do you think Christmas Eve is for?
On December 20, 1988, two of my younger siblings were killed as my father’s house burned to the ground in the middle of the night. This event has shaped not only the 26 Christmas Eves and Christmas Days I have spent without them, but also much of who I am as a parent, child, sibling, Christian, employee, and friend.
So as I read your closing remarks, I am struck with two opposing ideas or at least they appear that way to me.
First the reality of Advent, Emmanuel, God with Us and angelic messengers proclaiming ‘Be not afraid” (as I heard in a good sermon today) and less oft mentioned “Nothing is impossible with God.” All of which has given and continues to give comfort to my grief stricken self.
This grief stricken self is the one that agrees on some level with the nephew that the 24th of December is just a day. For the grieving, trigger dates carry such emotional weight. And when those dates fall during the Holiday season, the weight can be crushing. I have found it to be less painful, more meaningful, more glorious and enjoyable to celebrate Christmas either before the 20th or after 25th.
Yet the reality of Advent remains the same….God with me
Thank you. Thank you for sharing from your hard earned experience. I can’t imagine what this season has been for you these twenty-six years. You are right, of course. It is not the day — but what the day holds and promises — that brings such meaning. May God bless you in these days and always as you know the reality of Emmanuel — God With You.
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