December 20, 2009
"Ave Maria" muzak blew through speaker-wreaths at the mall in strange and perfect dissidence with the Christmas classic “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” that was ringing from the Santa kiosk. The booth had a long coiled rattlesnake-line of weary children on the verge of a venomous meltdown. Two old stoics sat on a nearby bench in the decked halls under camo ball caps that silently revealed their sugar-plum dreams of sitting in a homemade stand of pine boughs waiting for their Christmas feast to amble by. What normally would have been a tightrope walk hanging above a gulf of sarcasm masking my fear that my own materialism is drowning out the call to peace, instead, felt like just a sweet stroll with my children. I believe the joy was welling up in me, because I had spent the morning sitting with a woman who believed this may be her last Christmas. Seeing this Christmas scene through eyes filled with the memory of her tear-filled eyes was the antidote for hearts that while they may never say “bah humbug," still beat through stone-like flesh. I walked through those decked halls, welling up with gratitude for love.
That stroll became my “O come, O come, Emmanuel” this year. It came as a surprise, and it was freeing and joyful. It has made me reflect on how many seasons I have spent trying to get the Christmas spirit by getting back to the spirit of Bethlehem or at least the spirit of my youth and feeling like something was missing and ending up feeling lonely. This year though, instead, the gift of the spirit for me was found in imagining that this might be my last Christmas. I know that if this was my last Christmas, I would love every gift that I gave and every single gift I received. I think that if this was perhaps my last Christmas Eve, every carol would make me cry and sipping coffee by the tree as the kids opened presents would feel like even this sadness was filled with blessing. I think that if this were my last Christmas I could hear the words of "Ave Maria" and the Magnificat as balm to my soul. I could feel that Mary was singing her song of praise to all of us-- from generation to generation-- that remember our very flesh makes us human and lowly and that is what God loves. It is in our humanity that we are lifted up and that our pride is scattered as we remember that we are returning to God one day. If this were to be my last Christmas, that is the good news that would feed me and carry me through the many silent nights.
After my walk through the mall, I spent the next couple of days in a grateful cloud that always seems to hover after moments of clarity. I received an email from a woman who had contacted my brother, The Rev. Gladstone Stevens, III, to see if he was the same Rev. Stevens she had met in New England when he was a young priest. My brother explained that he was his son, and that our father had been killed by a drunk driver in 1968 when we were little children, not too long after she had met him. She wrote us back and said that almost 50 years ago before Christmas, on what would turn out to be one of my father’s last, my father and mother both were very warm and kind to her and her boyfriend, a young couple who found themselves in the middle of tremendous personal upheaval and change. She explained that they were both students and very much in love. She wrote, “When I learned I was pregnant, we decided to be married. We contacted St. Andrew's Church near Yale where your father was vicar. Your parents, who couldn't have been that much older than we were, invited us into their home for premarital counseling. I recall such a happy scene there, with at least two small children climbing on your father's lap. At a time when our world was full of censure, your parents were accepting and supportive. Your mother helped dress me in a borrowed gown and veil and choreographed the ceremony. I was in a daze. I wish your father could know that he joined us with strong glue---four children, ten grandchildren. I'm long overdue in expressing my appreciation, but it is heartfelt.”
For me, this letter was not overdue, but right on time. That my father, who I can’t remember, spent one of his last Christmases opening his home and church to a couple seeking shelter from the storms around them is the best Christmas gift I could have asked for this year. She remembered to write and give thanks 50 years later to children and grandchildren who might have wanted to ask the young priest, “How did you spend some of your last Christmases? And would you have done it any differently if you had known you would die so young?” Her email memory is a sermon to me about how each of us might want to spend this Christmas, whether or not it is our last—seeking to love without judgment, welcoming the stranger, not feeling put upon, opening our homes and hearts, letting children just crawl on our laps, planning a celebration in the midst of hard circumstances, and seeing Christ’s love in it all.