It was a mid-1970s Christmas Eve. I was putting on my clerical gown for the midnight communion service at St. Andrew’s United in North Bay, Ont. Choir members were lining up in the hallway. The organist had begun to play a medley of carols.
Suddenly, a police officer with bits of ice in his moustache walked in the side door. He kicked the snow off his boots and removed his fur hat. “There has been a terrible house fire down on Lakeshore Drive,” he whispered. “The parents and their three young children have lost everything. Next-door neighbours have taken them in. Stores and social services are closed. Your church lights were on, so I decided to try your door. I was wondering if St. Andrew’s could assist in any way?”
I looked at my watch. It was a few minutes to 11 p.m. The service was about to start. “I’ll do what I can,” I replied. The officer handed me the family’s address and information and disappeared into the downtown darkness as quickly as he had arrived.
I was glad that we sang all four verses of the first hymn, O Little Town of Bethlehem. It gave me a chance to mull over what to do. I decided that the worship should proceed as planned. I didn’t want to begin a joyous celebration of Jesus’ birth with such sad news.
The service drew to a close just before midnight. The sanctuary was aglow with candlelight as we sang Silent Night. Before the benediction, I told the congregation about my unexpected visitor and the family’s heartbreaking circumstances. You could have heard a pin drop. I invited those who were able to return to the church with Santa Claus gifts, clothing and food. Packed pews emptied slowly. At the front door, there were the usual seasonal greetings, handshakes and hugs. Strangely, the fire was never mentioned. I wondered how the police officer’s plea would be answered.
After everyone left, I went to my office, paced and looked out the window. The telephone was silent. I tried to tackle the paper on my desk, but my mind was elsewhere. I remember thinking about the holy couple in the stable and how they must have said their prayers. I closed my eyes. “God of Advent, I lift up my prayers of concern for this homeless family. . .”
As I waited, snowflakes piled up quietly on the windowsill.
About 1:30 a.m., I heard the unmistakable whirl of snow tires. Bundling up, I hurried outside. A cavalcade of cars was pulling up along the curb. Within minutes, boxes and bags were being carried downstairs to the auditorium.
This unforeseen mix of Christmas-morning caregivers knew exactly what to do. Sorting, wrapping and labelling began; gifts, enough food for two weeks, winter wear and bedding. I stood there in utter amazement, especially when Tom pulled up with an empty truck. It was his first Christmas on his own. Within an hour, his vehicle was packed and ready to go. Three teens were on board who had volunteered to assist. As Tom pulled away from the church, he rolled down his window. “Merry Christmas, John,” he shouted. “Merry Christmas, Tom. Merry Christmas to you all,” I called back.
I took my time walking home. Snow was crunching underfoot. I was tired. I needed some time to think about this eve of Christmas. But one thing was as clear to me as the stars that glistened overhead: we had just been to Bethlehem to see the Christ child.
Rev. John T. Harries is retired and lives in Aurora, Ont.
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