A Christmas Visitor
It was Christmas Eve evening in 1980. Most memories of that first Christmas season away from Virginia are now largely a blur. The very idea that I call it “Christmas season” betrays my religious upbringing. For earlier that same year when I was ordained me as a Presbyterian pastor, the church did not celebrate Advent, that haunting season of active waiting that ends tonight. No, in my younger years, once December 1st arrived, if not earlier, the Christmas season had arrived.
When this particular story happened, Jennell was a night nurse on the neonatal unit, Erin was toddling about, and Joshua would not arrive on the scene until almost two years later. Most of that December, I scrambled about trying to navigate my first Christmas as a pastor and to do so in the strange new land of Wilmington, North Carolina. That night in church when I read, “A decree went out” and “Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth to Judea” and “He went to be registered with Mary,” I thought far more deeply about a young couple traveling to a strange place, far from home.
It was chilly and cloudy that Christmas Eve night, nothing like the frigid temperatures tonight. Actually, it was a night nothing out of the ordinary. Or so I thought. Early the next morning, we would pack our tiny Toyota with people, Christmas gifts, and luggage and head north to Waynesboro, Virginia for Christmas with Jennell’s family. After we opened presents there and ate Christmas meal number one, we would drive to Newport News, Virginia for Christmas with the Charles crew. It was an insane schedule and it was an insanity that we would continue for more years I am ready to confess tonight.
Before we could think about Christmas travel, though, there was my very first Christmas Eve service to lead. I must have spent days, hours, preparing to make it the best service ever, but that memory has long since left me. What has survived the avalanche of time is a still one distinct memory.
On that first Christmas Eve night as a newly minted minister, I cannot tell you if Sheila was singing, “O Holy Night” or if a church member was the one reading the Christmas story from Luke. I cannot tell you how the sanctuary was decorated or whether we were holding tiny candles, like we are tonight, candles circled by paper that never seems to capture all the hot wax.
What I can tell you is on that first Christmas Eve far from home, there were no angels singing in the fields because there was not a field in sight. There were no shepherds around, even though I wouldn’t have known a shepherd if I saw one, being a city boy. No young couple arrived asking for a place to crash because they were out of cash and she was three days overdue. There was no stable, no barn, no makeshift cradle in sight, except perhaps the one made for the Christmas Pageant earlier in the week.
All I can remember from that night and remember as clearly as time will now allow is that a rather large visitor arrived well into the service. The visitor was wrapped in a coat that did not fit well and seemed half on, half off, and the visitor strolled down the center aisle in no particular hurry and not quietly. I had never seen this person before and would never see the visitor again. I can remember feeling some discomfort, wondering if I should do something having no idea what that “something” would be.
Throughout the service, the congregation would stand to sing a carol and this visitor would slump in the pew. Then, for no apparent reason, the visitor would stand and stretch, even when I was preaching what surely was the best Christmas Eve sermon ever preached anywhere.
By now, you may be wondering what happened next.
And, maybe that is the eternal Christmas question. Not what happened decades ago one Christmas Eve night in Wilmington, North Carolina, but what happens when God comes into the world and comes not at all in the way we expect. Born to two itinerant teenagers, arriving not with the sound of drums and trumpets but with a chorus of angels probably singing off pitch, visited by the global elite but only after being visited by nasty sheep-herders who would have been told to take a shower before stepping foot into any respectable house.
Maybe the eternal Christmas question is, “What happens when God comes into our lives and comes not in ways we expect?” What happens when God comes and unsettles our neatly ordered routines and our carefully crafted timetables, comes and disturbs our long-settled conclusions about what is true and what is not, comes and drives home the hope that life with God showing up even in the most inconvenient moments far exceeds life lived with no hope of God showing up at all?
Many years from now on a Christmas Eve night at Cove or a Christmas Eve night far, far away from here, may you look back and remember that God paid the human family an unexpected visit in Bethlehem and has not stopped visiting us since, visiting even when we have stopped expecting much from God or when we no longer think we need much from God, visiting even when we sometimes wonder if there is a God to pay us a visit at all.
I was ready to lead a carefully crafted Christmas Eve service one holy night years ago and then an unexpected visitor paid a visit. While we were singing, Silent Night, the visitor got up and walked out into the chilly night. I never got a name. What I did receive was the reminder of a God who comes into the world, a God who comes into our lives, always in unexpected ways, in unanticipated times, and when God does, it is always a gift that forever changes us.
So, my Christmas prayer for each of us on this holy night is:
Come, Lord Jesus into our world, into our lives!
Come, Lord Jesus, come!