Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Christmas Dinner

As we prepare for Advent and the new church year, I am trying to figure out the best way to get myself through a season that now bears painful as well as joyful associations. It is usually difficult enough for newly bereaved people to make it through their first holiday season, but I will have a particularly challenging time of it for two reasons. My wife died last year shortly before Christmas. What’s more, her fatal stroke occurred on my birthday, whose proximity to Christmas has always brightened this season for me. Now I need to figure out how to mark those occasions so as to recognize both the joy and the horror. 

I’ve decided to start with the lyrics to a song that has moved me deeply the past few years at this time: Noel Paul Stookey’s “Christmas Dinner.”

And it came to pass on a Christmas evening
While all the doors were shuttered tight
Outside standing, a lonely boy-child
Cold and shivering in the night.

This, of course, is the paradox of Advent. A young boy comes into the world, yet it is not in the midst of plenty but in a poor and meager place because the doors of those who could give in abundance were shut and barred to keep strangers out. It is a strange kind of joy that must stand cold and shivering because the night envelops it, the taint of death ever-present even at birth. But note that it is of this child that we long to hear, because his predicament touches our common humanity.

On the street every window
Save but one was gleaming bright
And to this window walked the boy-child
Peeking in saw candlelight. 

Why did the boy go to the one window that was dark: that seemingly had the least to offer? Yes, he may have felt himself unworthy, but perhaps there is also something about darkness that draws us as no mere light can do. Darkness is deep and rich and welcoming, and the faint glow of candles warms the heart.

Through other windows he had looked at turkeys
And ducks and geese and cherry pies
But through this window saw a gray-haired lady
Table bare and tears in her eyes.

Why, we may wonder, is this lady alone? Has she no children, no grandchildren, no family at all to make this night a time of laughter instead of tears? Or have we simply all missed her, all in our mad rush to the turkeys and pies whose richness dulls our senses to the truly lonely, to the ones among us for whom any special day will yield only a bare table and candlelight? To her the child is instinctively drawn, for he has no abundance to distract him.

Into his coat reached the boy-child
Knowing well there was little there
He took from his pocket his own Christmas dinner
A bit of cheese, some bread to share. 

Where, I wonder, did he get that food? Someone in pity must have reached out to him as he, instinctively, is about to reach out to someone else. The gesture is so universally human that we may be ashamed to have forgotten it. He who has so little has had no time to forget.

His outstretched hands held the food and they trembled
As the door it opened wide
Said he "Would you share with me Christmas dinner?"
And gently said she "Come inside."

In the question and the answer are stored all the mystery and holiness of the season. The young boy and the old lady are strangers and opposites, yet they complete each other. She has the home without joy or sustenance. He has the food without company or the nurturing presence of another. An old lady should have grateful children, and a young boy should have loving parents. By reaching out to each other, both acknowledge their need.

The gray-haired lady brought forth to the table
Glasses two and her last drop of wine
Said she "Here's a toast to everyone's Christmas,
And especially yours and mine!"

How many others, we wonder, had toasted that year to everyone’s Christmas? In all the houses with the turkeys and ducks was such a toast ever heard? Why is it the lonely old woman and the poor shivering boy who alone (in both senses of the word) share such a Christmas wish?

And it came to pass on that Christmas evening
While all the doors were shuttered tight
That in that town the happiest Christmas
Was shared by candlelight.

And now we see the point of the story. I imagine that the old lady had been mourning the loss of her family, either to death or to its spiritual cousin, indifference. She had been crying because this Christmas, for her, was a time of heightened pain and grief. The boy must have either run away or been, inconceivably, cast out. In their dinner together, loss and rejection met and embraced, and the result was the magic chemistry that produced happiness from out of nothing at all: no turkey, no presents, no beloved children or loving parents, death from cold and starvation a mere step away.

This year I will acknowledge that my birthday is a time to honor both birth and death, because the two are always and inextricably bound together. I will acknowledge that Christmas is a time to celebrate both joy and loss: the blessing of family at hand and the deep and lyrical grief of a great love that now lives only in the past, but whose memory paints hope and comfort on the unknown canvass of what is yet to come. I will step into that vastness with gratitude. I will live to begin another year.