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Into the heart of holiness

It’s Christmas Eve. The tree is up, the presents wrapped, but still you feel restless. The glow from a nearby church beckons. What will you find?

By Gary Paterson

It’s been a long day of last-minute shopping, baking mincemeat tarts and wrapping presents. Everything’s ready. Now what? Surely this is the moment to pour a rum and eggnog, turn on the Christmas tree lights and listen to some carols. But you’re restless. You even wonder about checking out the late-night Christmas Eve service in the church up the street. Stirred by childhood memories and nostalgia, you’re pulled by a wistfulness, a curiosity, a faint hopefulness for — what? Hard to know, but what you’re really wanting is for Christmas to matter.

“Just a breath of fresh air,” you say as you head out for a walk. Strange — it’s Christmas Eve and here you are, wandering the quiet streets. On the other hand, perhaps it’s not so strange. Maybe you’re leaving behind a home that is too full of memories from other Christmases, and this year you’re alone. Or maybe the house is too full of everything and everyone; family is a joy, but family can be tough. And however did there get to be so many presents under the tree? What makes for a Christmas that matters?

The night is long and deep. A half-moon lights the sky, but the stars still shine brightly enough to guide your way. You go slowly, thoughtfully. You can hear the church almost before you can see it — the service has started, and you catch the ancient refrain of O Come, All Ye Faithful. Light and music spill out the doors and onto the sidewalk. You walk closer, pause and take a deep breath. Then up the stairs — just to see, just to hear — right to the threshold. Come on in — out of the cold, into the warm; out of the dark, into the light; out of loneliness, into a welcome.

Come closer still, as if you’re walking into that ancient stable and standing among the animals — cattle and camel, oxen and dove. Whatever is happening this night, it includes the animals; it’s an evening for all creation. Legend claims that at midnight the oxen will kneel and the creatures will speak. The donkey who carried the mother from Nazareth to Bethlehem has its place, and so do you. You belong. You may be more than flesh and bone, but you are not less. Maybe Christmas is the time to stretch out your hands and say, “All my relations.”

Come closer now, move along past the back row and toward the shepherds, gathered in praise. Stand with them quietly. These working stiffs spend long days and nights watching over other people’s flocks. They smell like the sheep they care for. Some have wine on their breath, for the nights are cold and the campfire warms only one side. Whatever is happening this evening, the poor are welcome — the ones without land, without wealth, without status. They come with a hope stirred by angel song; no gifts, but much gratitude. Maybe your kind of people.

Perhaps Christmas is a time to remember all those wild Gospel promises: “God has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; God has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich God has sent away empty.” It sounds like social revolution. Now that kind of Christmas really would matter.

Come closer still, another few steps, and keep company with the magi, the foreigners from the East, newcomers to this country. There’s room for them too, these searchers, pilgrims, the spiritual but not religious. Maybe they’re people just like you — fellow explorers who observe the stars and honour the science of their times, trying to make sense of what they see and learn. Maybe Christmas is a time to celebrate the seeking and the questions; that would be a good beginning. But, you wonder, is there a moment of arrival, a willingness to offer gifts and praise when you think you’ve found the right place, the right person?

Come closer yet again and stand by Joseph, the husband, who may or may not be the father of the child, but who has already decided to accept the challenge and joy of raising this baby. Joseph, the patron saint of stepfathers, a “don’t just do something, stand there” kind of guy — maybe this is where you feel most comfortable: in the background, watching, a face of compassion, ready to do what’s needed.

Will you take those final steps to stand beside mother and child? Softly now, gently. The baby cries; she takes him in her arms and brings him to her breast. Is this what you were looking for? The heart of Christmas and the face of love in all its vulnerability and strength. It’s so ordinary — a newborn, a mother, a father, the spiritual and the poor, a circle of animals. And you. But where else did you expect to find holiness? Where else but in the flesh, the taste and touch of it? Where else will you discover God but in the give and take of love, the joy and the pain of it?

The service ends, and you head home. Did you find what you hungered for? Will you have a Christmas that matters?

Rt. Rev. Gary Paterson is the 41st moderator of The United Church of Canada.

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The author is baptized at Central United in Calgary. (Photo courtesy of Al Coe)

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