Christmas was near when a visitor arrived at the church I then served. He told the receptionist he needed to see a priest. She notified me and I came out to greet him.
I led him back to my office.
Like many, I sometimes make snap judgments. Like many, I’ll sometimes be wrong.
I assumed a visitor that “needed” a priest would be Roman Catholic. Moments into our conversation, as I wondered aloud about his faith, he said he wasn’t Catholic. He then mentioned his prior employment was in Los Angeles, where he’d worked on several “major motion picture film crews.” (Ah, Hollywood! Did he think me like a generic, wise movie priest comforting anxious souls, ready for a confession from the wounded—but well-lighted—hero?)
Wrong about his faith background, I was soon wrong about another of my snap judgments . . . that he was here to scam the church for money. Would he plead for a few bucks for a motel room? Maybe he’d claim a sick kid waited in the car, desperate for medicine? Or help to pay for a rebuilt carburetor? In the churches I’ve served, there have been countless cash requests, accompanied by tales about real (and fake) sick children and, yes, once even a carburetor was the reason. Some begged. Some demanded. Some wept.
But my visitor never mentioned money.
He did mention booze. Eight months of sobriety, and he’d fallen off the proverbial wagon. His world was, again, in crisis.
So . . . what did he want?
“A few kind words.”
Really, that’s all he requested: prayer and kind words. I think he longed for me, the priest he suddenly must see, to offer insights that could transform his life. Or maybe he only wanted to get out of the cold. After all, Christmas double dates with winter in my part of the world.
He talked. We prayed.
And I listened. I prodded him with tough questions. I actually believed much of what he shared, though I never knew which was fact versus fiction. Both versions were part of his history.
Slender, he stood a smidgen over six feet, with uncombed brown hair and gray eyes. Those eyes frequently avoided me, but when our gaze met there were equal parts melancholy and self-pity. His litany of sorrows was familiar: alcohol, a girlfriend who’d left, and no job. Except they were his sorrows. No matter how common, they added to his unique, here-and-now anguish.
He had arrived several weeks before Christmas, when the scripture lessons are frequently harrowing accounts of the “end times.” Luke 21:34-35 is often read at this time,
Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.
Dissipation. Drunkenness. The ancient words, had my visitor glanced at them, might have caused more remorse and fear—not for the “face of the whole earth,” but for the face in the mirror. The time before Christmas is filled with God’s promised action, but it also confronts God’s absence. In Nora Gallagher’s Things Seen and Unseen, she visited a friend not long before Christmas. The friend was dying from cancer.
She said her pain “obliterated my sense of humor, my confidence, my joy in other people, even my easiness in prayer. Through it all I have held on to one message—‘I will be with you,’” she said. “But I reply, ‘Where are you exactly, Lord?’”
This is a dismal season. Days are short, cold, and mean. And every year, as the night lengthens, churches display the greenery, trim the candles, and tell tales about Bethlehem. Joseph and Mary’s sojourn is romanticized. Young Mary is astride a donkey. Sturdy Joseph grasps the reins. Both are silhouetted in the full moon. It’s easy to add cheerful details in our Christmas carols and pageants. After all, we know things worked out for the Madonna-with-child.
At least, at first.
Soon cruel King Herod will sense fear and wield the sword. A trip to Egypt won’t be another step for Joseph’s family, but a desperate escape from the king’s vanity and savagery.
For the Holy Family, and for your family, the days before Christmas are hounded by darkness: from dawn’s delayed greeting to sunset’s sudden arrival. Night lingers like it purchased a one-way ticket. The road is hard, detours are abundant. Every decision tempts wrong turns. When reading the angel Gabriel’s “Be not afraid,” I picture trembling humans hearing his divine reassurance without being persuaded. Fears are shadows; even unseen, they are always around.
I listened to my Christmas visitor, who was burdened with misery. In his mid-forties, he’s lost. He asked the “Where is God?” and “Who am I?” questions. At one point, he mentioned his mother and admitted that he missed her.
Nodding toward my phone, I said, “Call her. Now.”
And he did. But she knew her son, about his drinking and failures. She knew his real needs were far beyond what she, in her love, could offer. She told me, for we also talked, that she’d welcome him into her home—again—but would prefer he’d enter a facility for professional help. In her calm voice, in her motherly anguish, she would accept him and accept more inevitable pain.
He had excuses. (Don’t we all?)
“There are only idiots at Alcoholics Anonymous,” he muttered.
Prior visits to rehab had always proven, “Totally useless.”
It’s the alcohol talking. It’s the self-doubt and remnants of pride talking. I offered to drive him to a place here where he could get help.
“Not right now. Maybe later.”
I suggested calling a church member involved with AA. No deal.
Soon he prepared to leave. He asked for a hug and we embraced.
And then he departed.
At Christmas, I’ve reminded congregations—and myself—that Joseph and Mary chose a journey of faith. Was it an historical event or a sacred myth . . . or both? Jesus probably wasn’t born in Bethlehem. Scholars far smarter than me have analyzed Luke and Matthew’s differing theological agendas regarding the birth. The stories are exuberant but the facts are suspect. Befuddled shepherds? Angelic hosts? Wise guys? Maybe they were all present, maybe none were. But let’s not debate our heartfelt traditions.
My Christmas visitor sought a priest. I tried to respond as priest, representing God’s concern and compassion. I honestly pointed to the tough road, and to the dark night. And, in a sense, to a Bethlehem star that may be myth or metaphor or miracle . . . and yet is also true. Martin Luther wrote, “Faith is permitting ourselves to be seized by the things we do not see.”
How can we imagine a new star lighting the sky until risking the first steps away from the old habits and hurts trapping us in the past?