It was in the third year of the term of Jimmy Carter as president. The birth that was anticipated was not in the holy family but in my family. Brenda was “great with child” and it was Christmas eve. She was carrying our firstborn, and we worried — as all expectant mothers and fathers do — if all of the fingers and toes would be in place, if the child would be okay, and how the mother would survive the ordeal.
I wondered if the father would survive. I wondered what would happen if Brenda suddenly went into labor during the middle of Christmas eve services. We escaped unscathed that night and our Christmas present from the stork arrived two days later.
It was the next day, Christmas day, that Brenda and I both remember so vividly as one of the most difficult in our married life. Being “great with child” we weren’t about to venture out of the immediate range of the obstetrician. Yet it was the first Christmas we would spend without being in the homes of our family. We felt the homing instinct stronger than any swallows returning to Capistrano or snow birds lighting on the sands of west central Florida. Like salmon that would fight upstream to return to their own spawning grounds, we wanted to fight Interstate 95 upstream, and knew that we would be okay if we could just get home.
Christmas day we spent opening a present and crying; we would recover long enough to open another present and to start the ritual of crying all over again. The saddest song of the season kept playing over and over again in my mind: “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”
The Christmas season has some of the biggest travel days in the airline industry. Perhaps it’s been that way since the beginning. For Joseph and Mary, Christmas eve occurred during the last leg of their long journey home, as Joseph had been ordered to return home to his city of birth for the purpose of conducting a census. The Christmas season is still one of the world’s busiest times to travel. Over thirty-three million Americans traveled during a recent Christmas season, and they did so because of what you and I both know: Christmas calls us home.
Why have you come to Christmas eve services tonight? Maybe you were invited by a friend. Maybe you’re here visiting relatives or loved ones and they invited you to come. Perhaps you saw an advertisement in the newspaper or we sent you a card. Maybe you are here because someone twisted your arm or ear. Maybe you’ve come because somehow Christmas wouldn’t be the same without the eerie silence and the candles and familiar hymns and the story that is so well known. Through motives that are sometimes clear and precise and certain, but sometimes through motives that are blurry and out-of-focus — like an eye that has been dilated — whatever your stated reason or purpose, the reason you are here is: that Christmas has called you home.
Home. It’s such a loaded work, packed with ambiguity. Fred Craddock tells of being a guest preacher in a church and of being invited into the home of one couple after the morning services. They sit down to Sunday lunch. The table was elegantly prepared and as Craddock commented on how nice it looked, the wife picked up a fork and said, “You know, I just don’t like these forks.” With that, her husband looked at her with rage in his eyes, got up, threw his napkin down, and said, “You’ve never appreciated anything that I have ever done for you; I can’t put up with this any longer,” and he stormed out of the house. Craddock, not knowing what to say, picked up his fork and looked at it, and said, “I don’t think the fork is so bad.” It was only later that he learned it was a second marriage for both of them and the only thing the husband had brought from his first marriage was the silverware.
It is amazing the power that one word can have. Fork. Or maybe Home. The twentieth century phenomena of blended families makes the picture of home that much more complex. Thomas Wolfe wrote, “You can’t go home again.” Robert Frost wrote, “Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in.” Which one is right?
The word home has a myriad of emotional tentacles that reach into the very substance of our souls. For some, the word home connotes safety and warmth and love and affirmation; for others the word home is enough to make them feel tension in their stomachs or to cringe in pain. Memories of abusive times — verbally or physically or sexually or otherwise — sometimes get in the way of our return home, yet it is only through that path that we may return. Our spirituality is so vitally connected to our own story, to our own journey, and to our quest for home.
What does it mean for you to come home? It’s such a loaded word. Brenda and I met Reg and Norma Wray in April of 1976 when we were thrown together in a community of travelers on a “If it is Tuesday, it must be Belgium” kind of trip. We were traveling Belgium, Germany and France together on a motorcoach, as they call them. The Wrays are from Australia. We’ve exchanged Christmas cards every year since then, keeping up with one another. Written on the back of the card we received from them this year was a note from Norma:
“We have had a very sad year. Our dearest granddaughter Alana, aged 8, passed away in May after a two year illness. She caught some strange virus which lodged in the brain and it has been a never-ending nightmare ever since. It was a blessing when she went really as she was completely mentally and physically disabled. We all miss her so much and hope in time that our pain and grief will pass. We all feel as if God has forsaken us and we have no answer as to why it had to happen. One day we hope to find an answer.”
What does it mean for you to come home? Would it mean finding answers to questions that have no answers, no real answers? Why couldn’t mom and dad make their marriage work? Maybe you have questions that have gotten in the way of you making your return trip. Wanting to come, but feeling like you can’t. There may be no answers to these questions and others, but the faith to which we cling ever so tightly, a faith that we celebrate this night, is one that through the course of His life would take Him from the cradle to the cross. We have no answers to the questions about suffering — only that He meets us in it.
Which brings us more than anything else to why we are here. The shepherds were working the graveyard shift when they were surprised by angels. Sleepy shepherds and sleepy sheep are suddenly awakened to a floor show that rivaled anything they had ever seen before. After the angels make their announcement there comes a crescendo of hope that continues to build until the angels themselves erupt into song. The birth of Christ announces Good News. He is the good news, for it is in Him that we have hope.
It was the announcement of His birth that re-awakened hope in the lives of shepherds. And hope, in turn, awakened a curiosity to the extent that they were willing to risk even their livelihood to “go over to Bethlehem to see this thing that has happened, that the Lord had make known to (them).”
Coming home means that we are willing to risk again, to re-experience the awakening of hope, and that we are willing — if we are curious enough — to latch on to His star and hang all of our hope on Him. Coming home means that before we can feel at home, anywhere, we must first be at home with God. Coming home means that “home” in the divine economy is a relationship with a person, the person of Christ. Home then is more a state of being than it is a place. It is not a goal to achieve, but a child to receive.
Frederick Buechner tells the story of being in Rome at Christmastime, and of going to St. Peter’s on Christmas eve to see the Pope celebrate Mass.1 It was the end of Holy Year, and thousands of pilgrims from all over Europe started arriving hours ahead of when the Mass was supposed to begin so that they would be sure to find a good place to watch from. It was not long before the enormous church was filled. The crowd was milling around, thousands of them, elbowing each other to get as near as possible to the papal altar with its huge canopy of gilded bronze and to the roped-off aisle that the Pope would come down. Some had brought food to sustain them through the long wait, and periodically singing would break out like brush fire. Adeste Fidelis and Heilige Nacht were sung — it seemed strange that everyone seemed to know the Latin words to the one and the German words to the other — and the singing would billow up into the great Michelangelo dome and then fade away until somebody somewhere started it up again. Whatever sense anybody might have had of its being a holy time and a holy place was swallowed up by the sheer spectacles of it: the countless voices and the candles, the marble faces of saints and apostles, and the hiss and shuffle of feet on the acres of mosaic.
Finally, after several hours of waiting, there was suddenly a hush; way off in the flickering distance, Buechner saw that the Swiss Guard had entered with the golden throne on their shoulders. The crowd pressed toward the aisle, and amid a burst of cheering the procession began to work its way slowly forward.
What Buechner remembered most clearly, of course, was the Pope himself, Pius XII as he was then. Contrasted to the splendor of the Swiss Guard in their scarlet and gold, the Pope was vested in plainest white with only a white skullcap on the back of his head. Buechner studied his face as the throne was carried by — that lean ascetic face, gray-skinned, with the high-bridged beak of a nose, his glasses glittering in the candlelight. As the procession passed him, Buechner noticed that the Pope was leaning slightly forward and peering into the crowd with extraordinary intensity.
“Through the thick lenses of his glasses, his eyes were larger than life, and he peered into my face and into all the faces around me and behind me with a look so deep and so charged that I could not escape the feeling that he must be looking for someone in particular. He was not a potentate nodding and smiling to acknowledge the enthusiasm of the multitudes. He was a man whose face seemed gray with waiting, whose eyes seemed huge and exhausted with searching, for someone, someone, who he thought might be there that night, but whom he had never found, and yet he kept looking. Face after face he searched for the face that he knew he would know — was it this one? Was it this one? Or this one? And then he passed out of sight.”
But in the crowd here tonight there is One who is straining to see each one who is here. Looking into each face. Looking into each set of eyes. He’s calling you home. Christmas is calling you home.
1. “The Hungering Dark,” by Frederick Buechner; The Twentieth Century Pulpit, James C. Cox, editor (Nashville: Abingdon, 1978, pp. 20-22.