He realized that his fingers were tapping out a beat on the restaurant table. Da, da-da, da-da, di-da-da. Over and over on the worn Arborite. He recognized the pattern now -- a carol. The words began to come back to him.
"We Three Kings..." How does it go? "We Three Kings... Gold I bring..."
Gold I bring, indeed. He fingered the box in his pocket. A gold chain. It was nestled in a magnificent little box -- the package made almost as carefully as the jewelry. He knew that the store only used these boxes for the top-quality merchandise, the A- list clients. And though he hadn't asked for it, maybe the clerk had seen something in his eyes, sensed that deep love was in this gift and chose the good box from the drawer, had handled it with care.
"Gold I bring..."
He had picked out another gift as well. Had it in the hardware store checkout line and almost to the counter before he chickened out. Decided it was a bad idea. That she might not get it.
A top-of-the-line 18-inch chainsaw chain. Solid riveted,
32-mm teeth, glistening with machine oil -- it was a beautiful thing! A Swensen Woodbiter 1440, the package said. She wouldn't have a clue what to do with it, of course -- would look confused. That was the point. A moment of fun, then he would give her the real chain, soft and smooth, not over-the-top but a sign of his love.
"Gold I bring... Da, da-da, da-da, di-da-da."
The brass band on the corner had been playing the carol and now it was stuck in his head. The words were filtering back into his consciousness. He hadn't sung religious songs in 20 years, but now there they were.
"We Three Kings... Gold I bring..."
He got up from his table to use the restroom, brushed past a small boy sitting at a little bench by the door. When he came back he noticed that some of the bread was missing from his bread basket. He looked up, caught the eye of the young boy and scowled.
The boy smiled back, gently.
He drummed more on the table. Checked his watch. Dave was late.
Smells from the kitchen wafted over the room. Tantalizing. As if you could smell warmth, smell abundance, smell feast. "Da, da-da... Frankincense to offer have I..."
He was a king once in a pageant, when he was a boy. He was King Number Two.
"Frankincense to offer have I..." When the congregation sang this, he was to kneel at the manger and give his gift. A simple role. It ought to have gone well.
But just as the congregation sang, "Gold I bring... ," and the first king had begun to move, Julia Finlay had smiled at him and he was lost. She looked at him -- she was playing Mary that year -- with that shy and very powerful look a teenage girl has that says, "I like you, King Number Two." So when Julia Finlay looked at him in that way he realized that now space and time meant nothing at all, and so even though the congregation was still singing "Gold I bring..." for King Number One, he just moved right in and knelt and handed over the frankincense. King Number One, thinking he had maybe missed his cue, rushed in to catch up and pretty much threw his gift at the manger.
All at once, King Number Three thought the plan had changed and nobody told him and so he rushed in with the myrrh way ahead of schedule and Julia Finlay just took all the gifts and so they all stood there while the congregation caught up and she kept smiling like that at him -- going on 60 years now, smiling at him. He could just about smell that first smile still. Old church smell. Wood and wax and smoke and paper and people and holiness and the smile of the mother of Jesus.
"Frankincense to offer have I..."
He got up to use the phone, check on Dave. The boy still there, and more bread gone when he got back. He scowled again and the boy smiled.
"Da, da-da... Myrrh is mine..."
Dave came in. Dave was making him think of death these days. Dave's brother was dying and it was rattling them all. Making him realize, just at a time when he was feeling deep in the heart of life, that it was not forever. Not this body of his, companion of every moment he lived. Not Julia, companion of his days.
What kind of gift is it that leaves us? What kind of God gives this kind of gift? Why make us like grass, here and then gone?
"Myrrh is mine..." Why should such a feast have to have myrrh? Bitter perfume.
He remembered a preacher telling them about myrrh, one day in Sunday school. Burial incense, he said. A reminder that Jesus was born to die. Death always there, he said, even at the manger.
Well, Jeez! Why did he have to go and say that? Did they look like they were having too much joy? Did they need to be brought down a notch or two?
In the long run, maybe it was because he found too much myrrh -- too many preachers dressed in black and throwing water on the fire. Maybe that's why he had found it harder and harder to be in church, and then easier and easier to not be there. And now he's left with remnants -- a memory of a smell, fragments of a song.
"Have you shopped for Julia yet?" Dave asked him, saw the nod, and grinned. "You got her the chainsaw chain, didn't you? Ha! I knew you would."
"Almost. I almost did," he said. "Next year I will." And he would, too. Next year he would.
And he realized, then, what he had said. He'd said, "Next year," and it had thrilled him, to have such a plan, to be imagining a time ahead.
Next year. Even though there was myrrh at the cradle and Dave's brother was dying and the band out at the corner had to play because the poor were still hungry. Next year. There was still more to be.
He looked at Dave and Dave said "Next year" back. He looked out the window at the band and thought next year and the next and long after, it will go on some more.
It was a gift of light. The light that shines in the darkness and the darkness has not put it out. He hugged Dave. Dave looked confused. Hugged him back. He hugged the waiter when it was time to go. The waiter looked confused. Hugged him back.
He gave the waiter an extra tip and said, "Give some of this to the boy who sits at the bench by the door. He ate most of my bread but he's probably still hungry." Now the waiter looked confused again, pointed to the bench by the door, where a woman was sitting, drowsy. "There?" the waiter asked. "She's been there all evening -- I know her."
"No," he said. "A boy was there. He ate my bread. I scowled at him. He smiled at me."
Now the waiter had a knowing look. "Ah!" he said. "I understand!" He pointed to the faded picture above the counter. It was from the old country. They brought it out each year, and it was looking tired. Gold paint chipped, faded. The holy family, the crowd around the manger.
The waiter looked solemn and leaned in close. "It's that time. It is a time to be imagining holy children. My people, we believe that if you dream of a child at Christmas, you will find great blessing in the next year. So you are a lucky man!"
"So I am," he said. "So I am."
There were gifts he had received, and he had gifts to give. And light, now, that the darkness will never put out.
Rev. Doug Norris leads the ministry team at Rosedale United in Toronto.
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