The Reverend J. Donald Waring ascended the stairs of the platform to deliver the Midnight Mass. His gray hair seemed to anxiously frame his pale face, yet a calm surrounded him.
Hundreds of us sat in the pews. We wanted, I thought, to feel Christmas and life itself in a new way. I didn’t know what that meant, but I wanted it. My expectations were high.
“For Unto Us, a Child is Born. For Unto Us, a Son is Given.”
He proclaimed these words with careful hope.
“For Unto Us, a Child is Born, for Unto Us, a Son is Given.”
And his sermon began. It began as I best like to hear sermons begin, that is, on a personal note. I shall attempt to recreate it for you or, at least, the parts that moved me.
“My father,” the Reverend began, “was a boy on Christmas Eve, in 1930. He looked at the wrapped presents under the tree. He was anxious, as he hoped for the present he had told his parents he so dearly wanted.
“The present he desired was a red metal box. He had shown it to his parents, who would one day be my grandfather and grandmother, in the store window. He would use the red metal box, he told them, to hold all his most precious belongings.
“But it was 1930, in the Depression years, and his parents could not afford to buy him this big, red, shiny metal box. It was beyond their means.
“My grandfather wanted to give his son the present he desired. And so my grandfather went around to the stores to see what they didn’t need. He found a large wooden crate. It was about the same size as the red metal box.
“My grandfather then spent many hours in his workshop, sanding this wooden crate down to make the edges smooth. He went out and found the reddest paint he could find – and he painted and polished the wooden crate to a shine not so red as the red metal box in the store window, but as red as he could make it.
“Christmas Morning,” the Reverend reflected, “is a very stressful time for many of us. ‘Will I get the perfect present I want?’ children wonder. ‘Will the present I placed under the tree be appreciated?’ parents ask themselves.
“Some two thousand years ago,” the Reverend reckoned, “we may recall God Himself wanted to come down to the people on earth, and show Himself, to show his true countenance and Being.
“But God could not do this. He could not show himself in his full and natural form. So instead, he did the next best thing. He did what he could do. He made Himself in human form, so we would know Him as best we could.
“This was not the perfect gift God wanted to give. It might easily have been rejected.
* * *
“You may not know this, but, seven hundred and thirty years earlier, Isaiah, the Isaiah of the Scriptures, gave advice to a king. The king was under attack by many armies. The king felt he was losing the battles.
“‘What do I do?’ the King asked Isaiah. And Isaiah said, ‘In two years, a child shall be born. And if you look at this child and honor this child, raise him up and care for him, then your troubles shall cease. These wars shall end. All will be well again.
“‘For Unto Us a Child is Born. For Unto Us a Son is Given. And the Government Shall Be Upon His Shoulder. And His Name Shall be Called Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace,’ Isaiah said. ‘And his name is Emanuel.’
“This is seven hundred thirty years before Jesus is born.
“The King must have said, ‘Isaiah, I was hoping you’d tell me where to find more troops to fight for me! I’m losing this war! But instead, you tell me a child will be born? You tell me to spend my energies on raising the child? I’m not going to do that!’
“Instead of raising the child, the King, desperate, sold his country into the protection and slavery into one of the warring kingdoms.
* * *
“Yet, seven hundred thirty years later, we know well the characters who were on the scene. They might each not have chosen to accept their gift. Look at them!
“Mary, a Jewish, barely-teenaged girl in poor living conditions, becomes surprisingly pregnant.
“Joseph, the man by her side, doesn’t know how Mary became pregnant, doesn’t have much money, but stays by her to help raise the child.
“The three shepherds, who come, bearing gifts to the manger.
“It would have been possible for each and all of them to reject the gift.
“I know, I know, I’m telling you stories!” The Reverend seemed suddenly frustrated with our lack of reception in the pews. “These are metaphors! But there is no better way for me to show you what I’m trying to say.
“As we reflect upon our year, some of us may be saying to ourselves, ‘I’ve had an awful year! I’ve had people close to me die. I’ve been around sickness. Nothing’s gone the way I wanted it to go. What did I do to deserve this? What do I do now? Do I sell out into misery and despair, or is there a better way?’
“I cannot imagine how God waited – would Mary and Joseph and the three shepherds accept his gift? Would the rest of the world accept his gift of Jesus Christ?
“The angel flew down to Mary and said, ‘For Unto You a Child is Born. For Unto You a Son is Given.’ And Mary welcomed the gift. That is when divinity met humanity.
“And I can only imagine how my grandfather waited, that Christmas morning under the tree. Would his son appreciate his gift, even though it was not the red metal box he wanted from the store?
“We’ve all seen people not accept gifts – scowl, or turn away.
“That Christmas morning, my father came downstairs. And under the tree he saw a present, wrapped, about the same size as the red metal box he had set his eyes on in the store window, the box he had dreamed of having.
“He knelt down by the tree, and began to unwrap the gift.
“He saw, he saw instantly, this was not the red metal box.
“Instead of bright red, it was a dull orange. Instead of shiny metal, it was wood. Yet my father, as a boy, somehow knew what his father had done.
“He treasured the wooden box for the rest of his life. He filled it with his most precious objects.
“When my grandfather, many years later, got a form of… dementia, and had to go live in a nursing home, my father felt horrible. He wanted to visit his dad every day, but it was impossible. They lived half a continent away. My dad flew out there often, but it wasn’t enough.”
At this point, listening to the Reverend, I wanted to object. “Of course your father could have visited his dad every day,” I almost shouted. “He could have moved and lived next door to the nursing home. He could have moved your family halfway across the continent. He could have moved his business or found another job.”
But I knew, I knew, there were details which were beyond my comprehension, details which the Reverend skipped over to get to the point. I knew enough to trust that the Reverend’s father had thought it was impossible. I remembered situations that I’ve thought were impossible, situations when I had the choice to make the best of the situation, or when I had the choice to quit or run away.
Uninterrupted, the Reverend kept on telling about his father.
“So he started writing letters. Every day, he would write his dad a letter. They were not long letters. Sometimes they’d be a thought he had while he waited for a client. Sometimes he’d scribble a note before he left his office for the day.
“In every letter, my father wanted to remind his dad about their life together. He wanted to remind his dad about the life they had lived, the experiences they had shared. My dad’s mom, his dad’s wife, my grandmother, would read these letters by his dad’s bedside, each and every one.
“My father placed the wooden box in his dad’s room, and every letter my father wrote was placed inside. One day he wrote,
“‘Dad, when I was a kid you made me this wooden box for Christmas with your hands, even though it was the Depression and times were hard. You found the crate, and the paint, and you sanded and polished. Dad, do you remember?’
“By the time my grandfather died, my dad had written him over a thousand letters. Each of them went inside the box.
“I keep the box, now, in my office, to remind me of my Dad.”
The Reverend finished. He could not bring a miracle upon us, nor upon himself, in the church. He could only do what he could do: he gave us a sermon.
It was a great sermon. It changed the way I think about, “When each of us is in a tough situation, what can we do?” As my friend Melissa said on the subway ride later that night, “You mean, do we say ‘Life sucks,” and focus on what sucks, or do we say, ‘I can do something, and this is what I choose to do.’”
It was an affecting sermon. I cried. What feelings the Reverend felt, I cannot know. But I bet they were enormous feelings and I hope, if he could relive the night and do anything in the world, I hope he would tell this sermon again.
As I waited in a long line, late the next day, Christmas Day, I remembered the sermon.
I was frustrated. I wanted to get to the end of the line and be done already. But that was not in my powers. So I did the next best thing.
I asked myself, “What can I do?”
At first I thought about flirting with a pretty girl. But I didn’t see any girls who struck me as pretty to flirt with.
Then I thought, “Feeling physical peace would be nice.”
So I chose it, and I did it, and I felt it. This is something that especially resonates with me. I felt my feet solidly on the ground. I slowed my breathing. I felt the air move around me. That hour of physical peace, since that is something I’m great at, and something that gives me deep wonderful feelings, was pretty cool.
I looked at the other people in the long line at the airport, and saw some of them arguing, some of them fighting, some of them rolling their eyes and fidgeting. Yet some were incredibly happy: a man held a guitar case and stood listening to music on his headphones. A mother and father joked with their three kids, and the three kids laughed together. An employee seemed very glad to help the line move forward, directing us where we needed to go.
I remembered the sermon, and the Reverend’s take on the situation that God had wanted to come down to earth in all His glory but, unable to appear fully, had done the next best thing. Would it be enough? God might have wondered. But giving life, and spirituality through life, was what many people in the world needed, and it was what God could do well. It was, I thought, better than enough.
* * *
I remembered the king who had rejected the gift of a child to care for, wanting more troops to fight his war instead, and losing terribly. I remembered Mary, Joseph and the three shepherds who had embraced their unexpected gift, and brought Jesus to the world.
I remembered the Reverend’s grandfather. He made his son a gift when he could not buy his son a gift. I remembered the grandfather’s fear that his son would reject what he had made. I remembered how that handmade gift became a lifetime treasure.
I remembered the Reverend’s father. He wanted his dad to be healthy again. Or at least he wanted to be in the nursing home with his dad every day. I remembered how the Reverend’s father had relived his experiences with his dad, by writing a letter every day.
I remembered how the Reverend remembered his dad by keeping the box in his office.
And I remembered first-hand, how the Reverend had anxiously began a sermon when he wanted to give us a new approach to life.
Would we accept what he had to give?
When had the Reverend accepted that, although he could not perform miracles directly, he could bring them around by way of his sermons? Was it hard for him to accept that he swept people off their feet with sermons? Was it hard for him to acknowledge to himself that it felt wonderful to give sermons?
“It is better to give, than to receive,” he had said. And he concluded:
“For unto us, a child is born. For unto us, a son is given.”