Christmas is not something some of you have been looking forward to this year, for a variety of personal, painful reasons.
An empty chair.
A long, sanitized hallway.
An uncertain future.
The loss of a loved one too soon.
Changes you didn’t pray for.
Questions about 2017 and beyond.
All of these have some of you feeling less than “peace and joy” during this season. What makes it even worse, perhaps, is remembering how this used to be the favorite time of the year for your family or the loved one who is not here to celebrate with you.
Today’s Christmas story is especially for you.
When I look back on my own personal history of Christmas, I can think of several years when the holiday had special meaning for me.
There was the year when I, despite being extremely unskillful with tools, fixed a bike for a boy in our town and delivered it to his house on Christmas Eve. His bike had been run over by a truck and needed some work. I got some spare parts from the hardware store that delivered bikes to needy children every year, I asked for advice about how to remove a sprocket (use a big wrench and remember the threads are backward). I fixed and painted the bike and attached a big red bow. I drove down a dead-end gravel road late Christmas Eve, tripped up the stairs, made the dog bark and yet, somehow, managed to get the bike on the porch and leave before anyone inside the well-lit house knew I had been there. I think that was the most fun I ever had making or delivering a Christmas present.
And I will always remember the Christmas Eve service of 1977, when I made the first serious (or as serious as a 12-year-old boy can be) dedication of my life to God.
And of course, as a parent, there have been many wonderful Christmas moments that are now sweet memories.
But the Christmas of 1991 is the Christmas that taught me most about the meaning and feeling of the very first Christmas.
It wasn’t the lights or the presents, or even anything special that happened in a church. This epiphany happened as I walked alone, on Christmas Eve, on a snowy sidewalk along the busiest street in Cedar Rapids.
I had spent Christmas Eve, and several evenings before that, in the hospital guest room, staying with my then 3-month-old son, Phillip, who had been rushed by ambulance to the hospital two weeks earlier with spinal meningitis. My wife was in another hospital in another city, recovering miserably from surgery she had had the day before. Our older two toddlers were at Grandma’s house.
Even though the hospital staff had been very nice and generous to us and provided several meals during the time we were there, I got a little antsy on Christmas Eve and decided to drive somewhere nearby for something to eat.
My car wouldn’t start.
The weather was relatively warm for December, so I thought I would walk. I knew there were several restaurants a few blocks away.
But every one of them had closed at 6. My watch said 6:05.
After walking a few blocks and finding several places closed, I decided there was nothing better to do at the moment than to keep walking. So I walked.
It was, for December, a perfect night for a walk. The weather was warm and the only other thing to do was to re-read every magazine on the hospital floor, so I kept walking.
I walked past several more restaurants, all of which had just closed. I bet the food in the refrigerators was still warm. Everything else in the city was quiet.
Then on the way back to the hospital, I walked through a small residential area. I saw a station wagon piled to the top with kids and presents. It stopped at a little white corner house that had “Grandma” written all over it.
As I watched this family head inside with their packages, I wistfully thought for a few minutes about how nice it would have been to have a “normal” Christmas like the one that just pulled up beside me — how wonderful it would be to be able to get together with friends and family and enjoy a good home-cooked meal.
But then I thought about another family long ago. A young family, far away from home, facing an uncertain future, depending on the kindness of total strangers.
“Silent Night” is a favorite hymn of many at this time of the year. But if the author stopped to realize that Mary gave birth in a barn she probably shared with animals in a crowded town during the busiest time of the year, I think he would have written a different song. Or at least used a different title.
And if you think the first Christmas was all “Peace on Earth” and “Joy to the World,” just remember that only nine months earlier, this young lady — who was almost certainly, according to historians, a teenager — living in a society that was known to punish immorality and irreverence with death, had to explain to her fiancé that she was pregnant and that, um, God was the father. Gospel writer Luke tells us that the first thing Mary did after the angel visited her was to get out of town “with haste.”
I don’t blame her.
After leaving town and meeting her cousin Elizabeth, who was expecting the baby who would grow up and become John the Baptist, Mary gave the beautiful recitation often called the “Magnificat,” in which Mary describes the blessings of God upon her and her people.
I believe that Mary’s second comment, directed to both God and Elizabeth, was, “OK, now how do we tell Joseph?”
Giving birth in a stable had to be easy compared to the many nights Mary lie awake wondering what Joseph would do when he found out.
The Bible even tells us that after Mary gave him the news, Joseph was trying to find a way to quietly break their engagement without subjecting Mary to the ridicule or possible punishment their society reserved for other unwed mothers.
God sent an angel to explain it all to Joseph, so that crisis was averted.
Now, months later, Mary and Joseph are in Bethlehem and it’s time for the baby to come.
There was no hospital, no room in the inn and no OB ward. The only recorded visitors to the new baby were shepherds who came straight from the field.
It’s not the way any of us would have chosen to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
Here is something else quite significant that I noticed while listening to a Christmas sermon: Not long after the angels appeared to Mary and Joseph and the shepherds, and the star appeared to the Wise Men, both those angels and that star then disappeared, leaving the mortals to pursue the Christmas story and confront the Christmas skeptics on their own, with nothing but their faith in the Christmas message to sustain them.
In all my years of celebrating Christmas in many places and many ways and with many people, I never once thought about how Mary and Joseph must have felt on their first — and, when you stop to think about it, their only — Christmas.
I don’t remember praying, in 1991, for a Christmas that was like the very first Christmas.
But standing alone on that snowy sidewalk, I realized that the holiday that usually brings most of us home to our families, had this young family far away from home, scared, alone and depending on the creative kindness of people they would probably never see again.
And for the first time in my life, I got a taste of how Mary and Joseph must have felt during the very first Christmas.
To them, the only thing good or special about that first Christmas was — the baby.
I do wish the best for all of you for Christmas. I hope you are safe and at home with your family and enjoying all of the happiness of your family’s holiday traditions.
But the fact is that some people will spend at least part of the Christmas season in a hospital or funeral home or other places where people who are hurting, sad, scared or alone.
And for those of you who may find this Christmas a time of sorrow, fear or loneliness, remember, the first Christmas came to people like you.