I John 4:7, 11-12; I Corinthians 13:4-7
The Reverend Tom Herbek
December 13, 2015
We have lots of jobs to do at Christmas, and we also have an opportunity. Because of what is going on around us, we sometimes miss the opportunity. When a loved one is not with us for the first time, when we have lost our job, when one of the people we thought was a friend has betrayed us, when our doctor has just given us bad news, we may miss the opportunity. Ann Weems describes the opportunity:
Each year the Child is born again.
Each year some new heart
finally knows love.
And in heaven
there is great rejoicing!
There is a festival of stars!
There is celebration among the angels!
For in the finding of one lost sheep,
the heart of the Shepherd is glad,
and Christmas has happened once more.
The Child is born anew!
Yet, when we feel unloved, overwhelmed, left out, lonely, and hopeless, is it any wonder that we miss the opportunity to hear and see and finally know love?
Robert Fulgham remembers the time when he missed it all:
One year I didn’t receive many Christmas cards. One fetid February afternoon this troublemaking realization actually came to me out of the back room in my head that is the source of useless information. Guess I needed some reason to really feel crummy, so there it was. But I didn’t say anything about it. I can take it. I am tough. I won’t complain when my cheap friends don’t even care enough to send me a stupid Christmas card. I can do without love. Right.
The following August, I was nesting in the attic, trying to establish some order in the mess, and found stacked in with the holiday decorations a whole box of unopened greeting cards from the previous Christmas. I had tossed them into the box to open at leisure, and then I ran out of leisure in the shambles of the usual Christmas panic, so they got caught up in the bale-it-up-and-stuff-it-in-the-attic-and-we’ll-straighten-it-out-next-year-syndrome.
I hauled the box down, and on a hot summer day, middle of August, mind you, in my bathing suit, sitting in a lawn chair on my deck, with sunglasses, cocoa butter, a quart of iced tea, and a puzzled frame of mind, I began to open my Christmas cards. Just to help, I had put a tape of Christmas carols on the portable stereo and cranked up the volume.
Here it all was. Angels, snow, Wise Men, candles and pine boughs, horses and sleighs, the Holy Family, elves and Santa. Heavy messages about love and joy and peace and goodwill.
If that wasn’t enough, there were all those handwritten messages of affection from my cheap friends who had, in fact, come through for the holidays.
I cried. Seldom have I felt so bad and so good at the same time. So wonderfully rotten, elegantly sad, and melancholy and nostalgic and all. Bathos. Utter bathos.
As fate always seems to have it, I was discovered in this condition by a neighbor, who had been attracted to the scene by the sound of Christmas caroling. She laughed. I showed her the cards. She cried. And we had this outrageous Christmas ordeal right there on my deck in the middle of August, singing along with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to the final mighty strains of “O Holy Night.” “Faaalll on your kneeees ,O heeeeer the angel vooiicees.”
What can I say? I guess wonder and awe and joy are always there in the attic of one’s mind somewhere, and it doesn’t take a lot to set it off. And much about Christmas is outrageous, whether it comes to you in December or late August.
- All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten
Sometimes it is in the attic, even when we don’t realize it. In many attics there is a lot of love. It may be stored in cardboard boxes or in plastic tubes, but it is there. But we must also realize that God’s love is present in people where we never expected it, in people who don’t fit as hands and feet and voices of God. And sometimes, we may be surprised to discover that we, too, are the hands and feet and voices of God. Joyce Rapp reminds us that we have to remember that God is the “One Who Dwells among us”:
May we look for your goodness in people who seem least likely to carry your love.
May we behold your radiance in the ones we quickly pass by at home or work.
May we discover your love in our deeper self when we feel unloving and irritable.
May we embrace you in the persons whose faithfulness we take for granted.
May we see your empathy in those serving the wounded of the world.
May we recognize your courage in the valiant people who speak out for justice.
May we notice our non-judgmental acceptance in those who keep an open mind.
May we search for your gentleness when it is covered with harshness in another.
May we observe your generosity in every gift we receive, no matter how small it is.
May we reveal your mercy when we pardon someone for having turned against us.
May we welcome your joy in the delightful voices and happy play of children.
May we convey your compassion when we visit those with illness and poor health.
May we detect your patience in those who put up with our impatience and hurry.
May we unite with your peace hidden beneath the layers of the world’s disharmony.
Christmas is an every-year reminder that God is among us, that everyone carried that spark of God’s presence within them. And if we listen carefully, watch attentively, and open ourselves to the possibility of Christmas, we too may experience the love of Christmas in a new way. But sometimes we miss it, and we may not realize what has been there all along. Perhaps we need a reminder, as most people do. Leo Tolstoy wrote about this need for our eyes to be opened in his story entitled, “Papa Panow’s Special Christmas”:
It was Christmas Eve and although it was still afternoon, lights had begun to appear in the shops and houses of the little Russian village, for the short winter day was nearly over. Excited children scurried indoors and now only muffled sounds of chatter and laughter escaped from closed shutters.
Old Papa Panov, the village shoemaker, stepped outside his shop to take one last look around. The sounds of happiness, the bright lights and the faint but delicious smells of Christmas cooking reminded him of past Christmas times when his wife had still been alive and his own children little. Now they had gone. His usually cheerful face, with the little laughter wrinkles behind the round steel spectacles, looked sad now. But he went back indoors with a firm step, put up the shutters and set a pot of coffee to heat on the charcoal stove. Then, with a sigh, he settled in his big armchair.
Papa Panov did not often read, but tonight he pulled down the big old family Bible and, slowly tracing the lines with one forefinger, he read again the Christmas story. He read how Mary and Joseph, tired by their journey to Bethlehem, found no room for them at the inn, so that Mary’s little baby was born in the cowshed.
“Oh, dear, oh, dear!” exclaimed Papa Panov, “if only they had come here! I would have given them my bed, and I could have covered the baby with my patchwork quilt to keep him warm.”
He read on about the wise men who had come to see the baby Jesus, bringing him splendid gifts. Papa Panov’s face fell. “I have no gift that I could give him,” he thought sadly.
Then his face brightened. He put down the Bible, got up and stretched his long arms to the shelf high up in his little room. He took down a small, dusty box and opened it. Inside was a perfect pair of tiny leather shoes. Papa Panov smiled with satisfaction. Yes, they were as good as he had remembered – the best shoes he had ever made. “I should give him those,” he decided, as he gently put them away and sat down again.
He was feeling tired now, and the further he read the sleepier he became. The print began to dance before his eyes so that he closed them, just for a minute. In no time at all Papa Panov was fast asleep.
And as he slept he dreamed. He dreamed that someone was in his room and he knew at once, as one does in dreams, who the person was. It was Jesus.
“You have been wishing that you could see me, Papa Panov,” he said kindly, “then look for me tomorrow. It will be Christmas Day, and I will visit you. But look carefully, for I shall not tell you who I am.”
When at last Papa Panov awoke, the bells were ringing out and a thin light was filtering through the shutters. “Bless my soul!” said Papa Panov. “It’s Christmas Day!”
He stood up and stretched himself, for he was rather stiff. Then his face filled with happiness as he remembered his dream. This would be a very special Christmas after all, for Jesus was coming to visit him. How would he look? Would he be a little baby, as at that first Christmas? Would he be a grown man, a carpenter – or the great King that he is, God’s Son? He must watch carefully the whole day through so that he recognized him however he came.
Papa Panov put on a special pot of coffee for his Christmas breakfast, took down the shutters and looked out of the window. The street was deserted, no one was stirring yet. No one except the road sweeper.
He looked as miserable and dirty as ever, and well he might! Whoever wanted to work on Christmas Day – and in the raw cold and bitter freezing mist of such a morning?
Papa Panov opened the shop door, letting in a thin stream of cold air. “Come in!” he shouted across the street cheerily. “Come in and have some hot coffee to keep out the cold!”
The sweeper looked up, scarcely able to believe his ears. He was only too glad to put down his broom and come into the warm room. His old clothes steamed gently in the heat of the stove and he clasped both red hands round the comforting warm mug as he drank.
Papa Panov watched him with satisfaction, but every now and then his eyes strayed to the window. It would never do to miss his special visitor.
“Expecting someone?” the sweeper asked at last. So Papa Panov told him about his dream.
“Well, I hope he comes,” the sweeper said, “you’ve given me a bit of Christmas cheer I never expected to have. I’d say you deserve to have your dream come true.” And he actually smiled.
When he had gone, Papa Panov put on cabbage soup for his dinner, then went to the door again, scanning the street. He saw no one. But he was mistaken. Someone was coming.
The girl walked so slowly and quietly, hugging the walls of shops and houses, that it was a while before he noticed her. She looked very tired and she was carrying something. As she drew nearer he could see that it was a baby, wrapped in a thin shawl. There was such sadness in her face and in the pinched little face of the baby, that Papa Panov’s heart went out to them.
“Won’t you come in,” he called, stepping outside to meet them. “You both need a warm by the fire and a rest.”
The young mother let him shepherd her indoors and to the comfort of the armchair. She gave a big sigh of relief
“I’ll warm some milk for the baby,” Papa Panov said, “I’ve had children of my own – I can feed her for you.” He took the milk from the stove and carefully fed the baby from a spoon, warming her tiny feet by the stove at the same time.
“She needs shoes,” the cobbler said.
But the girl replied, “I can’t afford shoes, I’ve got no husband to bring home money. I’m on my way to the next village to get work.”
Sudden thought flashed through Papa Panov’s mind. He remembered the little shoes he had looked at last night. But he had been keeping those for Jesus. He looked again at the cold little feet and made up his mind.
“Try these on her,” he said, handing the baby and the shoes to the mother. The beautiful little shoes were a perfect fit. The girl smiled happily and the baby gurgled with pleasure.
“You have been so kind to us,” the girl said, when she got up with her baby to go. “May all your Christmas wishes come true!”
But Papa Panov was beginning to wonder if his very special Christmas wish would come true. Per haps he had missed his visitor? He looked anxiously up and down the street. There were plenty of people about but they were all faces that he recognized. There were neighbors going to call on their families. They nodded and smiled and wished him Happy Christmas! Or beggars – and Papa Panov hurried indoors to fetch them hot soup and a generous hunk of bread, hurrying out again in case he missed the Important Stranger.
All too soon the winter dusk fell. When Papa Panov next went to the door and strained his eyes, he could no longer make out the passers-by. Most were home and indoors by now anyway. He walked slowly back into his room at last, put up the shutters, and sat down wearily in his armchair.
So it had been just a dream after all. Jesus had not come.
Then all at once he knew that he was no longer alone in the room.
This was not dream for he was wide awake. At first he seemed to see before his eyes the long stream of people who had come to him that day. He saw again the old road sweeper, the young mother and her baby, and the beggars he had fed. As they passed, each whispered, “Didn’t you see me, Papa Panov?”
“Who are you?” he called out, bewildered.
Then another voice answered him. It was the voice from his dream – the voice of Jesus.
“I was hungry and you fed me,” he said. “I was naked and you clothed me. I was cold and you warmed me. I came to you today in every one of those you helped and welcomed.”
Then all was quiet and still. Only the sound of the big clock ticking. A great peace and happiness seemed to fill the room, overflowing Papa Panov’s heart until he wanted to burst out singing and laughing and dancing with joy.
“So he did come after all!” was all that he said.
Sometimes we realize the presence of God’s love at the end of the day on Christmas, sometimes it takes until August before we realize it. Sometimes we feel the love of God in friends or family or people we meet. And, if we are perceptive, we may even find the presence of God within us. As Ann Weems puts it:
When the Holy Child is born into our hearts
there is a rain of stars
a rushing of angels
a blaze of candles
this God burst into our lives.
Love is running through the streets.