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Christmas after all

Admit it: Christmas can be a trying time. Five writers search for the holiness at the heart of the season.

By Various Writers

Stretched thin
By Jennifer Thompson

Family suppers, hot cocoa by the tree and madly wrapping presents: this is what Christmas Eve means for most people. For ministers, it’s a different story.

I love preaching in rural Saskatchewan. Every trip is an adventure, and none more so than last year’s Christmas Eve marathon. I left the house at 1:30 on a tight schedule. My first service was at 3:00, the second at 4:30 and the final one at 7:30. It was cold and windy, but the sky was clear.

My toes were numb as I drove through snowdrifts in my old van. Suddenly, the first little red-brick church rose out of the flat white prairie like a frosty mirage, a haven of warmth, light and joy. But I was greeted at the door by a frosty-looking congregation. The heat was out. Preaching in a long winter coat with scarf, toque and mitts is not ideal, but we made up for it with lots of laughter. There is something about cold winter nights on the prairie that brings people together.

After bidding everyone a merry Christmas, I was off to the next church. The wind had picked up and it was snowing. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, so I bundled up and cranked the heat in my old Dodge.

Driving through thickening snow, I prayed there were no other crazy people on the road. I knew the organist was behind me somewhere in a 4x4 pickup truck with huge tires. Eighty-five years young, four foot six and just a little cantankerous, she could take care of herself, I thought.

As I arrived at the church with two minutes to spare, she pulled in behind me and hobbled out of her truck, a big smile on her face. “Did you see the moose on the road?” No. No, I had not seen the moose. I closed my eyes and quietly thanked God for protecting me from death by moose on Christmas Eve. Climbing the stairs, I was hit by a wall of heat. Praise God for miracles.

I walked out of the church to six inches of fresh powder and a wind that cut right through me. It was -36 C, dark and quiet — a magical Christmas Eve, unless you have to drive for two hours.

Setting out, I was engulfed in drifting snow. Black ice covered the highway, polished clear as glass and completely unpredictable. The drive was hair-raising.

I arrived at my last service only 10 minutes late to a packed church. Three of the choir members did not show up, and one ran out crying just before showtime. The pageant ran long, the reader stumbled through the Bible passages and I couldn’t stop yawning.

Still, as I made my way to the door to shake hands, an elderly couple commented that they just love my services because they can hear every word. A young mother expressed appreciation for the children’s pageant. A couple who had been married in the church 20-odd years before told me how nice it was to be back. Perhaps the service wasn’t a disaster after all.

I arrived home to kisses from my babies, a foot rub from my husband, last-minute wrapping and hot cocoa by the tree. I did not hit a moose or a ditch, and my old van survived yet another Christmas Eve run. I made it to all three services despite blinding snow, icy roads and extreme cold. Not a bad night.

This year, I am leaving more time between churches and taking my father to help drive. The poor man will have to sit through three identical services. This year, the presents will be wrapped and the cocoa waiting, my family will join me at the last service to hear my son sing in the choir, and I have a new SUV with winter tires. Let’s hope it doesn’t snow.

Jennifer Thompson is a lay minister in rural Saskatchewan.

Under the wire
By Doug Norris

I expect I am not the first preacher to arrive at Saturday night still wondering how tomorrow’s sermon will end. Or the first one to go to a party instead of staying at my desk.

It was a Saturday in December several years ago. In the Advent readings that week, Joseph would put in his brief appearance as the apparently cuckolded one who refuses to embarrass his fiancée. There was lots of preaching material here — unexpected babies and broken honour and angels and dreams. But to my eyes, the thing that most needed exploring was this single appearance of the man Joseph, who is introduced to us as a “righteous man.” Even before the angel intervenes, he has decided against a public snit of offended morality, but will “quietly dismiss” Mary from their marriage pledge. Perhaps the older Joseph is wise, has seen enough in his years to understand that the laws of Moses can’t always compete with the passions of youth, and that the taste of indignation curdles quickly.

So in the pursuit of understanding what this “righteous man” might teach us garden-variety males trying to make our way through the 21st century, I asked a couple of dozen men in the congregation, ranging in age from 17 to mid-80s, to read the passage and share their thoughts. Where might Joseph lead us? I’m not above crowd-sourcing a sermon, exegesis by e-mail.

As expected, many insightful responses came back, and by Saturday I’d woven them into the message. Men often have power, or seek power, but we will also learn how to forego power, to exercise our power in the direction of weakness.

But the sermon hadn’t landed yet, still needed to circle back to the ancient Joseph and whatever deep love had moved him. And what better place to explore love’s movement than a Christmas party among good friends.

At the party, as is often the case on a Saturday night, people jokingly asked if I was all set for the next morning. So I said I was not, and I went around asking the men what they thought Joseph could teach us about being a man. These were short conversations. Perhaps they were embarrassed for me, aghast that late on a Saturday night, the preacher was still sniffing around for sermon ideas. “Poor sod,” they were thinking, “this close to Christmas and he’s low on fuel.”

At the last, my coat on and leaving the party, I heard my friend Peter, a member of the congregation, call out goodnight. He asked if I was ready for the morning. I replied that I was not and, turning to go, invited his ideas. Peter is a florist in a part of town with many synagogues nearby. He paused, furrowed his brow and said he knew a story. A Jewish story. And he told me about the Lamed Vavniks, the 36 hidden righteous men of Hasidic lore. In this admittedly patriarchal legend, there are always 36 decent men on the earth at any one time. Usually poor and obscure, they often do not know they are one of the 36, but it is by their just and merciful ways that God keeps the world alive.

Peter mused, could Joseph have been one of these? Could one of us?

Holy love, it turns out, is channelled down through the ages, power conveyed in compassion, strength delivered among the obscure and the weak. Over and over, Christians borrowing from Jews; preachers depending on the wisdom of florists. Every day, even late on a Saturday, we find light enough to make our way — enough for the life of the world.

Rev. Doug Norris is the team leader at Rosedale United in Toronto.

Birth pangs
By Rose Burke

Magnetic emotions draw my gaze across the room to the empty cradle in the nativity scene. Then the spiral begins. “You gave birth to a son on Christmas Eve,” my body accuses. “You gave him a name, and then you gave him away.”

I embrace the memories that arrive with the season. I relive the long-ago interview at adoption services. “You will abuse your baby,” I was told. I had insisted that was not my fear, but she was sure. “You will not mean to, but you will.” And when I expressed unease about who would adopt my baby, I was reassured: “He will be adopted by a professional family. He will have two loving parents.” And that was the crux of it; in Atlantic Canada in 1971, a baby needed two parents.

I see the maternity ward with the other new mothers, so concerned when my baby wasn’t brought to me. They were caring, but I could not reveal my shame. I was to name my baby, but I was not to see him. Against the rule, I did go to the nursery; he was beautiful and healthy. I asked the nurse to bring him to me for his next feeding, and she did. I held David Michael on Christmas Day, and he didn’t fuss as he took his bottle. It was the only time I held him. My caseworker came that afternoon to tell me I was making the right decision, to make sure I didn’t change my mind.

The next morning I was discharged, with empty arms and leaking breasts, wrapped in a silence that would last for years. Those who suspected never asked, and those who knew never mentioned it. Whenever I formed the words to reveal my secret, tears would choke their flow and I would remain silent, maintaining my defences.

When I married, my husband knew about the son I had given up for adoption, but I kept even him from this private place in my heart. Later, working as a parole officer and having no children, I avoided my Christmas grief by offering to cover the holidays. “Christmas is for children. I don’t mind working.” No one suspected my secret as I admired other people’s baby pictures, played games at baby showers, presented gifts to nieces and nephews.

But the universe forgave what I could not, returning my son, David Michael, six feet tall, understanding, accepting, loving. When I received the call from post-adoption services, my world started to expand. On the day we met, our arms embraced and tears flowed. The truth was finally free. His family welcomed me, a prodigal mom. Seeing my mother’s joy when she met her grandson released more pain.

I was included in my son’s wedding. There was pleasure in Dave’s voice when he introduced “his two moms,” but each time I heard “birth mom,” I still felt the familiar stab of self-accusation: “You gave up your son.” Quelling that inner voice took time, but eventually, as people would point out how much we were alike, I started to see myself differently, to judge myself less harshly.

The final step came when my son had a son. Even with experience, a stable income and a wonderful support system, the first few months were incredibly difficult as he and his wife adjusted to the demands of an infant. My heart finally knew that I had made the right decision, that I could not have given my baby what my grandson needs and is receiving.

Nonetheless, the Christmas spiral still comes. “Dave has such a wonderful family; I could never have given him that, could I? I did what was best for him, didn’t I? I don’t deserve this happiness, do I?”

The guilt has faded and the shame has dulled, but I will never be completely free; it is my penance. Spent, I place the porcelain baby in the manger.

Rose Burke is a retired parole officer in Rusagonis, N.B.

Pots and pans
By Donna Sinclair

Christmas begins in our house when the door is flung open and a small voice shouts, “We’re here!” It’s the starting whistle for a joyous marathon of hiding gifts and building snow people and singing.

We will go sliding. On Christmas Eve, we will walk home from church on snow-lined streets illuminated by paper lanterns, full of wonder at the candlelight.

Unless it rains, and the lanterns are drowned, and we can’t go sliding because there is no snow.

It will still be Christmas. But without snow, I turn into a boring person. We always had snow for Christmas when I was young, I point out at increasing volume. It was so cold the snow squeaked when you walked on it.

The residents of our holiday-augmented household treat me with varying degrees of compassion and disbelief, morphing into what looks like irritation as the snowless days pass. Because — if I am not careful — I turn dinner, lunch, every cinnamon-scented coffee break into forced education on the threat of climate change (40 percent of summer sea ice lost this decade!).

That’s my Christmas challenge. My whole soul wants to collar everyone I meet and hand them a pot and a soup spoon. Not for turkey soup. To bang on. Out in the streets. We could wear little white squares, I think maniacally to myself, to indicate our support for squeaky snow. We could chant, “Squeaky snow, squeaky snow, no more tankers, squeaky snow.”

The problem is, we all know this already. And the prime minister (who apparently missed the global warming bulletins I’ve been reading) doesn’t sit at my dinner table. It’s entirely possible that Stephen Harper doesn’t care what I think.

So what do I do? How can I save Christmas as a memory-making, hope-reviving time?

I will try to remember that the divine baby came into a violent world. He would have had an endless list of potential issues to rant about (forced marches for the sake of census-taking! Inadequate housing, especially during these marches! No elections! At all!) But Jesus didn’t rant. He simply offered stories and sometimes aphorisms, along with as much food as possible. He celebrated feast days and weddings with exceptional enthusiasm, focusing delightedly on the eating and drinking of the moment. There was every indication that he valued compassion over rage, and humility over semi-educated arrogance.

He healed people without regard for their political stance. And he loved his friends and his enemies, even when they were ill and demanding.

So I will encourage my guests to rest and tell stories. We will sing the songs of Christmas and Hanukkah, that festival similarly strewn with lights. We will love each other, and the Earth, even if she is in pain. Like Jesus, we do not desert our friends when they are ill. We love them anyway and pray for their recovery.

Food will be abundant. We will light candles and sit by the fire. We will play spoons and crazy eights. Someone will remember charades, and we will profoundly enjoy the inability of older family members to convey meaning through gesture. (“Are you a rabbit? Frog? Alien? Paper clip? Sick?”)

I will do my very best to send waves of compassion, not fury, to all those cabinet ministers who do not understand that climate change is happening.

If there is snow of any description, we will rejoice and play in it.

And when everyone has left and January is upon us, I will phone my member of Parliament. I will offer him a conversation on things like bitumen and sea ice and humpback whales. If he says no, I will get out the pots and pans.

Donna Sinclair’s most recent book is The Long View.

Spiritual whiplash
By David Giuliano

I had two weeks off at Christmas a few years ago. A rare thing for a preacher. I read a novel, listened to Kathy Mattea’s Christmas CD, went skiing, trimmed a tree, drank some wine and ate food with family and friends, volunteered a little and generally basked in a happy holiday buzz. I finally got why people like this time of year so much.

There are two narratives of Christmas. Most of us live one or the other. Ministers live them both at once. One is the narrative of good cheer, of returning to a warm home and crackling hearth. We light, trim, bake and wrap with all the joy of a new baby in our hearts. We hang mistletoe and a wreath. We watch a parade wend its icy way through town and hoist our kids to see the jolly old elf and his flying reindeer. We dance and drink a little too much. We gather round a groaning table and then groan a little ourselves on the way to the sofa.

Church folk organize a pageant, a white gift service or a food drive. We pray our limping budgets across the finish line to the glory of God before the end of the tax year.

There is a parallel narrative, though, one which preachers are also privileged to have a part in. We live not only rosy Christmas lights but their dark shadows too. The season of tinsel can have a sharp edge. Fallen angels retreat to our church basements from the alcoholic “cheer.” On Christmas Eve, when candles are lit and voices trill out “Joyful, joyful,” preachers are remembering the Blue Christmas or Longest Night service earlier in the week, when the broken-hearted sat scattered in the same pews, offering up their unspeakable grief. On that night, we sang with defiant hope, “Christ was born for this. Christ was born for this.”

After the Christmas Eve candlewicks are cold, we visit the hospital to bless the infirm, fearful and forgotten. When we finally sit to open gifts with our neglected families, we are thinking about the rent-subsidized apartment to which we delivered the last hamper: the Kraft Dinner on the stove and the boy who hugged the new hockey stick to his chest. In our pocket is the gift tag that says only “11-year-old boy.” On Boxing Day, when the rest of the world saddles up to go bargainhunting or for a ski in the woods, we hustle off to the church to lead a funeral for the girl killed in a car accident driving home from college in a storm.

Preachers sometimes talk about what a demanding time of year Christmas can be for us. There are so many events, special worship services, concerts, parties, programs for the poor. However, it is not volume of activity that drains my soul. The quick shifts from light to dark, joy to sorrow, leave my heart tired. I begin the new year healing a nasty case of spiritual whiplash.

On Christmas Eve, I carry a loaf of bread wrapped in a baby-blue blanket from the manger to the communion table. I rock it in my arms and coo and set the blanket aside. I raise that perfect bread above my head and break it. Sometimes there is an audible gasp in the congregation. “Oh right, this baby and that man on the cross are the same story.” We take this story, made whole in Jesus, into our bodies so we can tell it with our lives in the world of shadows and light.

For me, this is the moment when the two narratives of Christmas collide, when pain, sorrow, injustice and fear mingle with joy, peace, faith and love. It is right there, broken open for us if we care to see. It is not easy, this work of opening to the Presence in all of life. Being blessed rarely is.

Former moderator Very Rev. David Giuliano ministers with St. John’s United in Marathon, Ont.

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