In last week’s meditation, I mentioned that this special holiday season is very difficult for some people. The following story is excerpted from a true story a blog writer tells, of a story he heard a priest preach one Advent concerning the priest’s Christmas experience several decades ago. It highlights this difficulty, ending with an important lesson for us. It is called, “A Joyous Christmas.”
It was just a few days before Christmas, and a young priest in a small town on the eastern plains of Colorado was building a nativity scene for the church, up front, near the altar. He was busying himself with pine boughs late that afternoon and could not see the door, but heard the squeak as the door opened, and as he peered over the branches, he could see a small boy enter, poorly dressed against the biting cold. The young boy quickly moved to an old steam radiator to warm himself, and after the sting of the cold had left his hands and face, he looked around the church, and his eyes came to rest on the nativity scene.
The young priest, fearful that he might frighten the lad, remained motionless hidden behind the scene that housed the miniature child Jesus, and the rest of the familiar faces of the manger. After satisfying himself that he was alone, the youngster approached the manger scene and stood before it, looking down on the babe in the crib. Finally the boy spoke. “You’re poor too. You don’t look like you will get any toys for Christmas either.” A tear trickled down the face, reddened with the warmth of the church after the hurt of the cold. “You know what I want for Christmas, more than anything else in the world?” he asked the infant Jesus. “A toy army Jeep, with a real driver in the seat. Any kind will do, but it has to have a soldier driving it, or it won’t be any good.”
The priest’s heart was touched. His was a poor parish, but he didn’t recognize this young boy. The ragged boy continued, “I’ll bet you can get me that toy Jeep with a soldier driver. I’ll come back tomorrow and see you again.” And with that the boy left the church and went out into the cold.
The priest finished his work on the manger but his thoughts were on the boy and his request. Surely a toy Jeep wouldn’t be hard to find, but one with a soldier driver- that would be a tough assignment! Well, it’s worth a try, the priest thought. It was a small town, and the priest went into every store he could find, but found no toy Jeep with a soldier driver. He drove to neighboring towns and eventually his heart was filled with relief when he found a toy Jeep with a soldier driver.
Early the next morning, as the priest walked to the church, his thoughts turned to the young boy. What was his life like? His thoughts troubled him, but as he clutched the toy Jeep with its soldier driver in his gloved hand, he felt relieved that at least the infant Jesus would have a Christmas gift for him. After entering the church, he carefully placed the toy Jeep with its soldier driver next to the crib where the infant Jesus lay.
Later in the afternoon the priest hid himself behind the manger to await the boy. Minutes passed into an hour and the priest became discouraged that the boy wouldn’t show. The old radiator hissed out its sound of heat and as the priest thought about the boy’s thread-bare unsuitable coat to hold out the biting Colorado cold. He hoped he could determine who the boy’s family was and perhaps help his family in some way.
Darkness began to spread throughout the church, and only the warm glow of the candles lit the pews. The priest thought of snuffing them out but continued to wait when, suddenly, the door hinges groaned and squeaked as the young boy appeared at the back of the church. Once again he went to the radiator to warm himself. For a second time, the boy satisfied himself that he was alone. He carefully approached the manger scene. The priest was breathless with anxiety, and as the child came close, and the candle by the manger lit his face, the priest saw the joy of Christmas come alive in his eyes.
“I knew you could find it!,” the boy exclaimed. It is just what I wanted, a toy Jeep with a real soldier driver!” A slight cloud appeared in his face. “But, I don’t have anything to give you. Well, maybe I’ll find something for you at home.”
The needy child turned and walked down the aisle, then he paused and turned back as he clutched the Jeep tightly in one hand, but held something hidden in the other. He walked back to the manger scene, and placed an object in the crib by Jesus, and merely said, “I’ll share with you so you will be protected, Merry Christmas,” and he made his way out of the church.
After the squeaky door closed behind the child, the priest walked around to the front of the manger and what he saw in the crib, put there by the boy, brought tears to his eyes. The boy had placed in the crib with the infant Jesus the part of his toy that made it so special, the soldier driver. We can say of stories like this what Hamilton Wright Mabie, an American essayist, editor, and lecturer born in Cold Spring, N.Y. in 1846 stated, “Blessed is the season which engages the world in a conspiracy of love!”
Joseph prepared to, what was then thought of as, “divorce” Mary even though they were engaged and not quite married yet. Why? Because she was pregnant and they hadn’t been sexually intimate yet so that he would naturally assume she had committed adultery against him. Jewish Law would have dictated that he publicly divorce Mary for adultery, which may have ended in her death. However, because he was righteous, he was going to do so quietly rather than publically disgrace her. Then an angel, a messenger of God, appeared to him and explained that Mary had become pregnant through the work of the Holy Spirit, and, as angels often did, exclaimed, ‘Do not be afraid. Take Mary as your wife and you will have a son whose name is to be Jesus.’ Joseph did just that. Consequently, we have this beautiful progression that continues in the biblical Christmas story as told in the Gospel of Matthew, leading to the birth of the baby Jesus, the beginning of Christianity’s story.
Most Christians would say that there has never been another child born like the one in Bethlehem so long ago. He was unique and special in so many ways. This Jesus, who was in the beginning with God, the Gospel of John tells us, is God. Without his beginnings, divinity in human flesh and all the messiness that goes with it, that we celebrate during the Advent/Christmas seasons, his life and death would certainly be less meaningful to us.
The word Christmas literally means Christ’s mass. It is to be worship of the birth of Christ, the one who saves, as the baby Jesus. In the west, we celebrate Christmas Day on the 25th of December. What is known as Christmastide is the Twelve Days of Christmas, (how long the season lasts) until the 6th of January, the celebration of the epiphany of the wise men standing before the baby Jesus. The use of the term Merry, before the word Christmas, is a hope we human beings will find the season cheerful and full of hope and abundant joy. The announcement of the Angel to the shepherds in the fields found in the Gospel of Luke clarifies the sentiment behind “Merry Christmas”: “…the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy!”
It is imperative that we keep before us the fact that Christ is not merely in Christmas. That is a day and season we chose to celebrate his birth and what that means for our lives. The divine born in Bethlehem is something we surely ought to celebrate throughout the year. The author of an article entitled, “Keeping Christ in Christmas, or Not” explains: “Keeping Christ in Christmas is not a segregation of Christ from the everyday; it’s a supplement to his daily presence.” We are to spread the good news and reach out to those in need all the year round, perhaps especially to those with little hope and joy.
A marine wrote the following poem I will excerpt: Twas the night before Christmas, he lived alone, in a one bedroom house made of plaster and stone. I had come down the chimney with presents to give, and to see just who in this home did live. I looked all about, a strange sight I did see, no tinsel, no presents, not even a tree. No stocking by mantle, just boots filled with sand, on the wall hung pictures of far distant lands. With medals and badges, awards of all kinds, a sober thought came to my mind. For this house was different and dreary, I had found the home of a soldier, once I could see clearly. The soldier lay silently sleeping, curled up on the floor in this one bedroom home. Was this the hero of whom I’d just read? Curled up on a poncho, the floor for a bed? I couldn’t help but wonder how many lay alone, on a cold Christmas Eve in a land far from home. The very thought brought a tear to my eye. I dropped to my knees and started to cry. I kept watch for hours, so silent and still and we both shivered from the cold night’s chill. I didn’t want to leave on that cold, dark night, this guardian of freedom and peace, so willing to fight. Then the soldier rolled over, with a voice soft and pure, whispered, “Carry on Santa, its Christmas Day, all is secure.” One look at my watch, and I knew he was right. “Merry Christmas my friend, and to all a good night!”
A concern is that just like this poem and my opening story illustration, for too many people Christmastime is not joyous and offers little hope. Although the soldier in the poem spoke hope, many soldiers, especially after they come home, have very little. Janice Maeditere explains “Christmas is not as much about opening our presents as opening our hearts.” This time of year reminds us that we are to open our hearts especially to those who need our financial help or other kinds of assistance, to open our arms to embrace those who are grieving, to open our ears to listen to those who need to be heard, and to open our eyes to see a world in need of the hope and joy that Christmastime brings.
Oren Arnold, a freelance writer born in Texas in 1900, has a good suggestion to sum up my point: “Christmas gift suggestions: to your enemy, forgiveness. To an opponent, tolerance. To a friend, your heart. To a customer, service. To all, charity. To every child, a good example. To yourself, respect.” // Friends, what Christmas teaches us is how to live throughout the entire new year.