Christmas comes with many thoughts of a future celebration, but also many memories of Christmases long ago. These glimpses both, future and past, warm my heart and allow me to see Christ in the season.
One of those best recollections was my first Christmas as a new believer. I was going through a divorce that I did not seek, while trying hard to be mom and dad to my three girls: Rachel, Sarah, and Hannah. They were the reason to try and continue maintaining Christmas traditions and to muster enough to make theirs a modest but enjoyable holiday. However money was scant, time was slim, and energy was non-existent. Our injured family had been trying to heal from great heartache and loss within the arms of a warm, loving church that didn’t hinge on tradition but truth, and the importance of showing Christ’s love to its people. In addition to being both parents, I also wore two other hats at work. I was not only the administrator, but also the head teacher of a small Montessori school in western New York, and I was barely holding it together with this double job too.
One Sunday in late November, it was announced that our church had decided to have a huge Christmas party on a Friday in mid-December and hold it in the sanctuary itself. This was revolutionary in my mind. Sanctuaries were holy ground…but a Christmas party for Jesus’ Birthday seemed acceptable and even most appropriate. The elders had suggested that everyone was to present a gift specifically for Jesus. As another week went by and the announcement for the Christmas party was once again made, greater clarification was provided for the types of gifts that could be given. It was obvious that the present was whatever you could give whether it was service, an expression, or something specific for anyone in need, but all as an demonstration of love to Christ.
As that Friday morning arrived, I couldn’t think of anything creative, significant, or valuable to give. Nothing. It was a crazy day. My kids had only so many clothes and by the end of the week, all nice outfits were already worn, so we looked pretty mottled that day. To avoid being late for school, I hurried the girls out the front door with their baggie breakfasts of Cherrios, backpacks, and my own briefcase. But not before, quicky throwing a few cans of beans in a plastic shopping bag to bring to the Christmas dinner party after school. Our rusty gray Datsun, which we had dubbed “The Silver Bullet”, also sported an interior ceiling fabric which sagged in many places. Because I lived over twenty minutes away from the Montessori school at which I worked, I decided to stay and use what would have been extra travel time, to clean school shelves and organized library books. The girls could help me or play quietly while I tinkered. Our church was only a few minutes from my job. So after that, I wearily and tentatively drove to there with girls in tow to celebrate Christ’s birth like I had never before.
But I had one big problem. I did not feel worthy of celebrating especially when I entered the auditorium and saw festive adults dressed up in lovely glittering Christmas garb. I then scanned my girls and my own attire. We looked drab and run down, more haggard than holiday. Fridays are a hard day for a teacher to look spunky and spry. I just wore a blouse and khakis while my girls had on threadbare corduroy slacks and faded turtlenecks. I felt horribly dejected and filled with self pity. To compound my self-loathing, I felt ashamed of my “Gift for Jesus”and hid the plastic grocery sack with three cans of dark red kidney beans, the last of our reserve, in the cloakroom outside of the auditorium.
Inside the sanctuary, people were milling around a huge sheet cake adorned with red pointsettias and green holly. The words “Happy Birthday Jesus” were written in red icing with great flourish and precision. My girls were thrilled with an idea of a birthday cake for Him and seemed genuinely thrilled to be at the festivities. A delicious meal was served and after the dishes were cleared, we enjoyed the cake with coffee or punch. Some fanciful Christmas cookies were finally served to punctuate our supper. I was still pretty preoccupied with my gift for Jesus, and that patheric gift of canned beans was weighing heavily on my conscience. I wasn’t sure how or when to present them or if I even wanted to. Perhaps I could skip my gift, melt into obscurity, and no one would notice.
All of a sudden, one of our elders was speaking in the front of the sanctuary and announced that the “gifts for Jesus” would be presented. I turned around to listen. The first gift was the ballet dance of a darling little girl who was outfitted in a fluffy pink tutu and danced in silky ballet shoes to an instrumental version of, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Everyone clapped and then the next gift was explained; it was from a teen boy who promised to rake leaves and shovel snow during the winter months for an elderly woman at church free of charge. What great ideas, I thought. This increase on fixation on my insignificant gift, when I was startled by an elder calling my name. “Gina Clark!”
Oh no I thought, he wants me to bring my gift up in front of everyone. Beans! Just three cans of beans. What could Jesus do with that? I was so ashamed, but it was now or never. I sheepishly and incoherently tried to explain that my gift wasn’t with me pointing in the direction of the cloakroom. I wasn’t a few footsteps towards the exit to retrieve the bag, when I heard him calling me to clarify.
“No, he went on to explain. It was a gift for me. Me? I was so confused. “Come up and get it.” I slowly and reluctantly went up still belaboring two things: One — there must be some mistake, and that I still had to figure how to get my beans to the elders without them knowing it was from me; Two — what people thought of my shabby khakis, crinkled blouse, and disheveled hair. I wasn’t really registering the whole gift for me as I walked up to the podium. All of a sudden he produced a Christmas gift card for $150 for use at our hometown Kmart. I was shocked, embarrassed, and wanted to get right back to my seat, yet managed a smile and a genuine thank you. But that wasn’t all! Next he pulled out a large broad brown box. “This is for your girls.” I spotted Rachel, Sarah, and Hannah sitting at the dinner table with red punch and cookie crumbs on their mouths. I am not sure if they realized the significance of the moment. I wasn’t sure I had!
I took the big box from him and he helped me dismanted its contents starting with the tissue paper. “One of our ladies has made each of your girls a doll.” He pulled out one of the trio and held it up for them to see. The girls were full of wonder and smiles as these dolls were beautifully made with frilly dresses and lacey hats. My eyes started to fill with tears, especially as I saw the joy in the elder’s face and in the audience of my church family. I was still in awe of everyone’s generosity, and thanked them again and again in between swallowing my own tears.
As I took the dolls back to the table to show the girls, they started to take them from the box to admire them. Hannah, the youngest, hugged hers close to her chest gently rocking it. I was totally astonished at the love these folks had shown me and my girls. I was continuing to grow in my understand of the Family of God. The rest of the evening was a bit of a blur, but when all the gifts had been given, we then concluded with some carol-singing.
As I had listened to words that I had sung as a child, I remembered that I had never quite grasped the import of their lyrics. I had figured it was the Old English that obscurred my understanding. But now that I was born again, the veil was torn from my eyes and sweet lyrics made complete sense: “ God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen, let nothing you dismay. Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day, To save us all from Satan’s power when we had gone astray.” Or another familiar hymn had rejoiced in more truth about the babe born in a stable and who had died on a tree, “Hark the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King! Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” The music had always been ethereal and filled with the resplendence of God, His glory, and His heavenly realm, but now there was significance and an impact that I finally understood His sacrifice for me personally. Tears came again to my eyes as I realized what I was saved from, and what I was saved for. And I somehow knew that day, that God would always take care of us.
As the dinner party had wound down, I had remembered my cans of beans. I finally admitted to one of our elder’s wives that my gift for Jesus was some food for the poor. She smiled, graciously thanked me, and told me that I could leave it in the kitchen. As I left my cans of beans on the counter, I realized that I had given all I had, that someone had given abundantly to our family from their own resources, and most of all that Christ had given all he had.
The night came to a close as the girls and I piled into “The silver bullet”. I drove through a snowy night, windshielf wipers slapping to familiar yet “new” Christmas carols gently wafting from the car radio. Somehow that delapidated car with rusty doors and a wretched roof seemed aglow with something divinely bright and almost tangible inside its metal transport.
With great joy and gratitude, my voice rose with emotional emphasis, “Girls never forget tonight, Jesus IS real, and he cares for us. He used our church family to bless us with money for our own Christmas and someone worked hard to make dolls for you to love.” Their cherubic faces looked at their dolls and I thought of the gifts that I could buy my little family. But all that, though precious, wasn’t the most significant, and I uttered with a continued wondrous weight in my voice and glimmer in my eyes.
“No, these things are nice, but they alone aren’t what Christmas is all about. Jesus himself loved us through our Christian family and their gifts. Always remember this night because it shall always be a reminder that Jesus himself is the gift!”