A note from Jamie Howison: the feature image on this post is a detail from our new Christmastide liturgy card. Thanks to Lola Eidse for her remarkably warm depiction of Mary and the Christ Child.
I want to tell you a kind of a Christmas story. It goes back twenty years, when I was providing some pastoral support to a very troubled young woman. It wasn’t by any means formal pastoral counseling or spiritual direction; she wasn’t coming to see me in my church office, and we certainly weren’t praying in the chapel. No, we were going for coffee. Every Sunday afternoon for close to three years, I would pick her up at her apartment, drive to the closest Salisbury House where we’d always sit in the same booth, have three cups of coffee, talk—or sometimes not—and after an hour I would drive her back to her apartment and continue on with my day. I would never hear from her during the week, but like clockwork there she’d be every Sunday at 2pm, waiting on the front steps of her apartment block.
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It is no exaggeration to say that she was the most profoundly wounded person I’ve ever known. She didn’t trust her social worker, didn’t like the psychiatrist she’d been referred to, wouldn’t even talk to the community health nurse. But for some reason that I still can’t quite fathom, she’d reached out to me—this “church guy,” as she called me—and as far as she could, she trusted me. I suspect I was one of the only people in her life who cared about her, and wasn’t paid to do that. Maybe that was what made the difference.
Week after week after week, a cup of coffee, refill, refill, time to go. She’d sit and chain smoke, and most days she’d want to talk about the same things; have pretty much the same conversation over and over. Some weeks she’d just sit wordless for the entire hour. When that happened I gave up trying to crack the stony silence, and learned to just sit with her, honoring her need to not talk.
It was a Sunday in early December 1996 when she told me that she wanted to buy Christmas gifts for the caretaker couple in her apartment building. They were in their late twenties, and they’d been extremely good to her, helping her out in small ways and checking in on her if she hadn’t emerged from her suite for a few days. “I know what I’m going to get for her,” she told me. “But I don’t know what to get for him. What do get for a guy?”
“Tell me about him,” I replied. “What does he do? What does he like?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “He smokes. I’ll just get him a carton of cigarettes.”
“He can buy his own cigarettes,” I said, “He’ll just smoke the ones you buy and they’ll be gone. You want to think of something that he wouldn’t just buy for himself.” I paused for a bit, and then said, “What about a Zippo lighter?”
“It is kind of a classic,” I said. “They’re made of stainless steel, and use lighter fluid and flints. They have a nice look and feel, and just never break down.”
“Are you sure he’ll like it?” she asked. “What if he quits smoking?”
“Then he can use it to light candles or campfires. Trust me, he’ll like it. It is good gift.”
“Where do you buy them? I don’t get my cheque until Friday.”
“There’s a place in Grant Park Mall that sells them. Next Sunday we can stop there before we go for our coffee.”
And sure enough the next Sunday found us in Grant Park Mall, where she quite confidently bought the Zippo lighter and a little can of lighter fluid, and off we went for our coffee. On the following Sunday—the last one before Christmas Day—she looked across that Salisbury House table at me, reached into her purse, pulled out the lighter and tossed it on the table. “It’s a stupid gift,” she said. “I’m not going to give it to him. I don’t want it. You might as well keep it.”
I began to protest—to try to change her mind—but then the realization hit. This had never been for him. It had been for me all along. She wanted to give me a Christmas gift, but didn’t know how to do it. Giving me a gift would have said she cared, and when you’ve been badly, badly hurt it is dangerous to care. “Thank you.”
That lighter has lived in the back of my dresser drawer for most of these twenty years, but I’ve still got it. It might be one of the most treasured gifts I’ve ever received. And it still works. Just as I’d told her, Zippo lighters just about never break down. And they close with satisfying snap.
We like giving and receiving gifts, most of us do, but they can also come with so much freight, can’t they? She had to find this offhand way to give me a gift, and I had to receive it almost as if it didn’t matter. I suspect there are many here who have purchased something for someone, and right now if you think about it are a bit, you’re anxious as to whether or not it was such a good idea. I suspect that tomorrow morning someone here will open a gift, look at it and wonder what exactly it is… “Oh, thank you,” you’ll say, as the giver grins with delight that you like it… whatever it is.
The gospel story we proclaim tonight is about the greatest gift; God’s self-giving into our world. God becoming human, born as a fragile baby, and living in the midst of us. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” as John puts it. Yet even in this lovely story there are signs that not everyone knows how to receive the gift. When this young couple arrive in Joseph’s ancestral home town of Bethlehem—Mary ready to give birth to her baby—the best they can find is a stable. No room for them in the inn, Luke says, but there was also no one prepared to open their doors to a young woman in such obvious need. In the story of the visit of the Magi that we’ll tell at the end of the twelve days of Christmas we meet the character of King Herod, who not only doesn’t want the gift of a baby born to be king, he is prepared to send death squads to Bethlehem to wipe out any chance of that baby surviving. As the gospels roll forward and tell the story of the adult Jesus, again and again we read of how he was rejected as a threat. It is generally those in places of power, those with a vested interest in the status quo, who see him in this way. And it ultimately lands him on an executioner’s cross.
But there are others who see him for the gift that he is. Fishermen, status-less women, despised tax collectors, hungry people and sick people and marginalized people. They see, and as best they can, they receive him. That’s in tonight’s story too, in the figures of the shepherds. In portrayals of the nativity scene, we always see a group of men, but in fact shepherds were as likely to be women and even children; families. It was tough work, carried out by people pretty much on the margins, but it was to such as these that the angel appeared. The shepherds were terrified, Luke tells us, but then we hear that great line of angels: “Do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid, because this is good news: a baby has been born, the child of promise. The sky explodes with light and sound, and when it has passed the shepherds race down the hills to go and see for themselves. They receive the gift with openness, in other words, and then return to their tough work up in the hills, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” Not that shepherding was any easier or the long nights out on the hills any less dark… at least not literally. But they had seen and they had accepted, and no one could ever take that away from them.
There is much about our world these days that is harsh and dark and confusing. Against those realities, it is my prayer for all of you that over these coming days of Christmas there will be something that will shine with light and joy and peace and hope. Something deeper than unwrapped gifts and a grand meal, lovely as those things can be. No, I wish for you a glimpse of the deeper gift, an inkling of grace.
Have a happy and blessed Christmas season.