Three contemporary tales of Christmas presence
Travelling through the isolated hills of northeastern Pennsylvania on the way to a seminar one Advent, the man jolts to attention when his gas tank warning light flashes red. The S curve snakes into a tiny burg: a gas station, post office, branch bank, and a few clapboard houses.
Then, at the gas station, he discovers that he’s left his wallet in Philadelphia. Upon his request for a gallon of gas on credit – offering his watch as collateral – the attendant behind the plate glass window looks startled, then apprehensive. Is this a con or a camouflaged holdup?
Surely the bank, or someone in the bank, will advance him even a dollar in his predicament. The bank lobby is reverentially quiet, like a cathedral: Christmas lights in soft glow, a crèche in the corner.
Cathedrals formerly were at the heart of village and religious life. But today the cathedral is sidelined, with the bank now the centre. With the same quiet reverence, we wait until the money priests beckon, then present our offering. It is scrutinized and, when approved, we leave reverently, humbly.
The teller asks, “How may I help you?” When the man explains his predicament, the money counters freeze in tableau. The teller expresses shock, then thin-lipped disdain, as if the man had committed flatulent in church. How dare he; this is a bank! He will need to speak to the manager.
The manager, nervously arranging his note pad, says, “What seems to be the problem?” The man explains, requests a few dollars for gas, and offers to leave his address. “Sir, this is a bank, you can’t just walk in here and ask for a few dollars without credentials. How do we know you are who you say you are?” But he only needs a dollar’s worth (gas is 55 cents per gallon)! Sorry, this is a bank.
To the jaunty lyrics of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the man walks through a silent lobby, past the nativity scene. Salvation Army bells jangle on the sidewalk.
A few miles out of town, there’s a small hut with two old gas pumps surrounded by a gravel lot. Parking his car on the side, he walks into the hovel and finds an old lady wrapped in a large mackinaw beside a flickering gas heater.
“Hello, traveller, you don’t seem happy this Advent season.” He explains his predicament.
“Pull up to the pumps.” In response to his “I need only a gallon or two,” she doubles his request. He takes her address and promises to send her the money.
The next day, returning from the seminar, he decides to pay the lady in person.
Taking out his wallet to reimburse her, he is firmly rebuffed. “Son, absolutely not.”
“But what made you decide to give me gas and double my request? What if I’d been the kind to con you and never pay it back?”
“No matter. No deed is ever fully lost; even the con man may at some juncture in his life remember.”
She continued, “My late husband used to say, ‘Honey, during Advent and in life, we join the wise in bringing gifts.’”
Malls always seem to lower one’s IQ: cacophony of warring sounds; flare of garish, eye-piercing lights; crying, stressed babies; epileptic neon promotions. No angels descending under this garish iridescence. Is this how the world ends? Not under a bright Advent sky, but in fluorescent orgy?
Nearby an elderly gentleman in suit, top hat, and cane is confronted by two religious propagandists. For truth, no doubt – but in violation of mall policy. Slipping into a nearby bench, I pretended to read a newspaper as I witnessed the story play out.
But these are things God wants you to know.
Under the cascading mall cacophony, his mild response was barely audible.
But do you believe in the Holy Spirit?
By what proof?
Schubert, the Psalms, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, my rose garden, people who love me and I them . . . all is ours in Christ. The devil owns nothing; the Spirit pervades everything.
And they left him, thinking, “He’s just another unbeliever.”
But I was left with the transcending fragrance of another world in the middle of a shopping mall.
My brother, Henry Dueck, died close to last year’s Advent season. The memorial service was at Douglas Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, and sounded like a Christianized United Nations. Since Henry had spent his living in missionary work, greetings and good remembrances echoed from Bolivia, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, Switzerland, Princeton, Indiana, and Kelstern, Sask.
Myrrh is an ointment traditionally used to lovingly embalm a deceased person for their final journey. At this “embalming” memorial service, we gathered around a coffin that had been crafted by son Billy “for Dad’s last journey,” with the grandchildren at strings, clarinet, piano, and Lena’s dance to a baritone solo:
My life flows on in endless song,
above earth’s lamentation.
I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation…
How can I keep from singing!
Finally, letting Henry go, to let him be, we gave him back with a sung farewell of Matheson’s hymn:
O Love that will not let me go…
I give Thee back the life I owe
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
The embalming ended with a communal breaking of bread, love stories, and finally a song sung for each other:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
In Advent’s gold, frankincense, and myrrh: O death, where is thy sting!