Five years ago I preached this sermon while I was in a rural parish in SW Ontario. After the service several folks gently accused me of ripping it off of someone like the CBC’s Stewart MacLean, which I took as a compliment to the sermon if not to my character, since I had in fact written it. It was my first and to date only homiletic creative writing. I leave it to you to judge its merits, but to you, readers of Mad Padre, consider it a Christmas gift. Blessings to you all, and may you know God’s love and sustaining presence in the new year. Michael
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all”. Titus 2:11
It’s dark when the sound wakes you. Not some polite “is anyone at home” tapping at the front door, but a loud urgent banging, as if someone’s trying to tell you that the house is on fire. The person at the door may be someone you’ve known all your life, or it may be a mere acquaintance, but the expression and a few urgent words are enough. You know that if you don’t go with this person, you will regret it for the rest of your life.
There may be a sleepy child and a protesting spouse that you have to wake and bundle up, or it may be that you’ve been alone in this house for far too many years. You struggle into coat and boots and follow the messenger into the cold night air, to where a vehicle sits running. Perhaps you slide onto the leather seats of a sleek import, or sit on the cracked vinyl of a muddy farm truck, smelling comfortably of wet dog and gun oil. You head off into the night.
A few folks have left their coloured lights on, but without the snow and in the damp night they seem pale and dim. For years you and your neighbors have hung lights and decorated for a time you’ve called the holidays, with only a vague sense of what it all means, and a nameless hope that somehow the lights and the gifts will keep the darkness at bay. Tonight this is hope is faint, and the town huddles into itself, surrounded by dark and wet fields, as if not even daring to dream.
You head into the dark tunnel of the night, and then your driver points to a something. At first it’s a glow glimpsed through the tree tops, but once you’re in open country you see it clearly through gaps in the scudding rain clouds. A comet or meteor, perhaps, hanging low in the sky, a clean, silvery glow, like running water sparkling on a sunny day. It’s like your dearest memory of seeing the northern lights when you were a kid, only purer and more magical, if that is possible. As you drive you feel a nameless sense of expectation.
You realize that you’re not alone on the road, even at this late hour. Other vehicles are heading in the same direction. You start to wonder what concession you’re on, because the landscape looks unfamiliar in the silvery night. Finally you pull off a gravel road into a deeply rutted farm laneway, and stop where the others are parking.
The ground is wet and the mud pulls at your boot as you make your way up the lane. You pass an old delivery truck bearing the name of a long defunct business, and a Chevy of a vintage normally seen at heritage shows. Others are walking with you now, and some are neighbours and you nod to them, but others are strangers, and some are adults you remember from when you were a kid, all walking with you up this laneway.
A small crowd has assembled in front of a barn that’s seen better days. You see people you know – Anne from curling and Joe from Lions and the couple who run the restaurant, and Mr. Olson, your schoolbus driver from long years ago. They’re mixed in with strangers in muttonchop whiskers and tight bun hairstyles you’ve seen in old pictures. An immigrant family in rough workclothes stands beside a group of First Nations people in deerskin and fur wraps. To one side is a small knot of olive-skinned, bearded men in thick homespun, carrying serviceable crooked sticks and one holding a young lamb, and beside them a homeless man in an old parka and some folks from the Crest Centre. All patiently wait their turn until, in ones and twos, they can enter the barn and look inside. Breaths mingle in the night air, but you notice that you’re not cold.
You watch those coming out of the barn, and each is different. Some are grinning and some look quiet and thoughtful, but all seem taller as they leave, and their faces are bright with some new inner glow. Then it’s your turn, and you push back a rough sheet of plastic and enter. Inside it’s fragrant with straw and warm animals. A single light bulb hanging from a wire reveals two strangers, a very young woman, and behind her an older man, his body hardened with work but his face gentle. Their newborn child is wrapped in clean horse blankets and cushioned amidst a pile of woolsacks and feed bags. Two barncats watch with glittering eyes, and a horse snuffles in the shadows.
You don’t wonder at why these people and this child are here, and not in some clean hospital. You only draw closer, holding your breath, until the mother smiles her permission at you and you find yourself kneeling in the clean straw. The child opens his eyes and looks at you, like no other person has ever looked at you before. You feel a great surge of release as the locks on the secret and shameful places of your soul open, and the iron doors of regret and long-nurtured anger open to the bright light of this child’s presence. You feel cleansed and scoured, your soul freed of its grime and cobwebs. You realize that you’re not alone, not left to suffer and doubt and fear. Somehow, you know that this child has come to serve, has come to keep company, has come to save.
As you stand and prepare to leave, the child holds your gaze a moment longer and you realize that this gift is not for you alone. It is for all those here with you, and for those in countless other places. You realize that this child is also present in nursing homes and small towns, in city shelters, in army camps, in hospitals and prisons and every place in between. He is here now, in this moment, and in all the times before and in all the times to come.
And so you leave this place, and turn back into the night. Outside in the farmyard and in the surrounding fields, the mud and the wet are gone, covered by snow that is whiter and cleaner than any dream of childhood winters. The dismal rain clouds are gone, and the sky is ablaze with stars, as if escorting that one silver light that still draws newcomers up the laneway. You and your companion make your way back to the car, walking with others. People are thoughtful and quiet, but you exchange looks with Ann and John and Mr. Olsen and the folks from the old pictures. You know now that the child loves all these people, and somehow all carry the marks of that love in their gentleness to one another.
Your companion head the car back down the laneway. Later you could never recall how long it took to get back to town, whether it was minutes or hours, but it was long enough for the stars to grow pale and for a golden sun to start climbing into the clear blue sky. Your last memory is singing the old carols together as you neared home, something about a little town where the hopes and fears of all the years have come together in this one night.
©Michael Peterson+ 2006