I want to tell a story, a true story and a Christmas miracle that I saw many years ago. Perhaps in relating this story someone who may be feeling overwhelmed by all the commotion the holiday season brings will become still for just a moment and catch a glimpse of things that protest the cynical voices that often come out of nowhere.
Many years ago I was appointed to serve a small parish in a rural community in the heart of the South. Previous to that time I had worked for a number of years as a police officer in the inner city and was a confirmed cynic and fairly well hardened character. ( I left that job and in order to pursue a graduate degree in Historical Theology and Philosophy.) Oh, and let me add, this particular parish was made up of folk who could be called by today's standards, dirt poor.
There was a young girl in that parish who had been born with a crippling genetic disease. At 12 or 13 years of age she was about the size of a small six year old and rarely walked more than a few feet, rather she hopped about dragging her broken legs behind her or curling them up in an odd sort of way. Her tiny legs were often raw since the house she lived in had dirt floors.
Two or three days before Christmas she became seriously ill and was admitted to a teaching hospital at a major university in an attempt to correct a life threatening kidney problem. I went to visit her and was told by the attending physician that there really wasn't much to be done. With that depressing news I went in to have a short talk with that poor child and not really knowing what to do or say asked her what she wanted for Christmas. I sort of listened letting the news that her doctor had told me sink in......
To my surprise she only wanted to be in the Christmas pageant at the church.......and she wanted to play Mary. When Christmas eve arrived and all the screaming and rowdy kids, dressed in bathrobes and an assortment of flip flops lined up began their procession down the aisle I looked up and standing at the screen door of that church was that desperately ill child. She grinned from ear to ear and walked the 40 feet to the altar and knelt by the cardboard/manger holding a dirty rubber doll wrapped in a 50 cent blanket. As everyone sang Silent Night, she let lose a few tears, kissed that old rubber doll and placed it in that old box. She held that doll like it was the most precious thing in the world and when she put it down gently stroked its head. I think she knew that this would be her last Christmas with us. And, I think as her parting gift to those present she gave us a glorious reminder of how hope, love and the true gift of Christmas should be received.
My cynicism faded in that moment and all the world's troubles seemed far away. Forty years ago that child delivered the best sermon ever preached in that tiny old church in the middle of nowhere. And to this day I can still see her smile, joy and love on full display.