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“Hey, Liz! Santa’s coming over at 7:30! Wanna come?” The invitation pierced the soggy gloom. It was my neighbor, emerging from her car with both hands weighted with holiday bags stuffed with toys. Across the street white lights swathed an evergreen tree and outlined the roof of another bungalow. It felt like the whole world was holding its breath.

“Sloane and Clark can’t wait. There’ll be other kids, too,” she added, her boots squishing the bent grass as she approached me.

The little kid within, stirred: Memories of waiting in line for Santa, of Mother unbuttoning my snowsuit and removing the knit cap from my brown hair electrified by the dry air. The music and jingling bells, jumbled pieces of chatter, babies crying—all disconcerted me. I was leery. Only my hand in Mother’s could contain my flip-flop feelings. Each Christmas, we rode the trolley downtown to enjoy the animated windows encircling St. Louis’s Famous-Barr Department Store, then to visit Santa. I was always glad to return home.

I was next. Within moments, arms hoisted me upon Santa’s lap, his whiskers brushing my cheek. My words dried up.

Then it was over until the next Christmas, the box of paper dolls with blunt scissors under my arms.

It seems like the greatest gifts are sourced within terrifying moments as if to strip us of securities that stunt spiritual growth. That’s been my experience, gratitude only coming later, with new lessons learned.

 

 

“… Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.” The last strains soar to the rafters of this darkened church as we snuff out our candles and blink beneath the illumination of the overhead fixtures. The service is over. Once again the story inflames our hearts.

No matter that everything around us feels worn: the electric fans mounted on the dusky pink walls of this cruciform church; the cherry-red velour used in the drape behind the Italian marble altar, the upholstered presider’s chair, and the carpet in the sanctuary; the used poinsettias affixed at intervals along the wrought-iron communion rail; the languishing figures in the crib set; the carved receptacles mounted upon the backs of the pews that once held hymnals; the aging worshipers, about forty in number, in a church that used to hold hundreds; the hickory floorboards smoothed by decades of worshipers since 1894.

No matter that the city’s pollution besmirch the once white stones of this German Gothic church with its steeple enveloped in the night.

No matter that streetlights shadow abandoned houses, vacant lots, and brick sidewalks of North St. Louis as we drive toward home through the womb-like mist.

There is still life in such places for those who seek it. Emboldened by the Christmas story, laced with hardship and sacrifice, we carry its message of lightsome joy into the dark world around us.

Happy New Year!

 

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He was a humble man, soft-spoken, given to reflection. He worked hard—his hands calloused by his tools and bronzed by the sun. Unjust taxes robbed him of financial security, and in the coolness of the evening he sought solace in the Book of Psalms. How well he understood the centuries-old cry, “To you, Yahweh, I lift my soul, O my God. I rely on you. Do not let my enemies gloat over me.”

He never complained. Mourning doves still hooo-hooo-ho-hoood in the yard surrounding his one-room rock and stucco house. Goats still gave their milk by his latch-door. Greening fields afforded hope for the harvest.

But he was lonely. Stories of a comely woman in the neighboring village stirred his imagination; it was if he heard her song. He would go see her, his sandeled feet spirited along miles of dusty roads. Rarely did he stop to rest.

She, too, had been waiting for him in her courtyard as she combed flax and watched the sun shadow the distant hills across from her. Yet, seemingly insurmountable difficulties rocked their betrothal. Stunned, he waited—said nothing—prayed—and begged for a dream. And direction did come. They married and later gave birth to their firstborn son; his feet drew tender-hallowing from the new father as he wondered.

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The name of this humble man was Joseph of Nazareth, a hardscrabble town in Galilee.

Merry Christmas!

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