Christmas Eve is supposed to be that wondrous time when the hope and anticipation of Advent collide with the very real and living presence of God. It's where the "Now and Not Yet" of Advent begins to coalesce into the "Now and Yet Again" of God's kingdom come on earth.
We gathered on Christmas Eve for our traditional Tortilla Soup with Tamale Feast. I'd add, "as we always do" but that would be redundant since this is our tradition. It is also tradition that we open up our meal and our home to guests who are far from home and exchange some simple gifts. We invite them to worship with us and then share in a late supper. We do it so some people don't have to be alone on Christmas Eve.
Now before you start feeling guilty about how you spend Christmas Eve, it's not like we invite the homeless shelter to bring all their overnight guests to the house. Usually it's just students who come over and that's simply a function of who we hang with. And students, whether they're International or just can't get home for the holidays, are like most of us. They don't like to be alone either.
But this year was different. All of our students either made it home, had better offers, or they heard we were serving Tortilla Soup and Tamales, again. So, having plenty of tamales and no students to munch them down, we tried something else. Joining me, my wife and our son at the table were three friends: Queen Anne*, Sarah*, and Job* who, even though they live nearby, thought that the offer of Tortilla Soup and Mama Inez's tamales was better than a Home Alone Christmas Eve.
Sarah arrived first (Anne had joined us for her very first Christmas Eve worship ever) and there was a moment of recognition between them as Sarah put down her purse. Introductions seemed unnecessary but we held our breath as they began to place how and from where they knew each other. Turns out that Anne and Sarah were distantly related by marriage through their respective "exes" and hadn't seen each other in over 20 years. Cousins-in-law twice removed, or something. This had all the ingredients
What are the chances?
Breath holding escalated into intentionally trying to deprive ourselves of oxygen in the hopes that we'd faint. I considered doing the legendary "stand up" routine so I could just hyperventilate and get it over with... Anything would be better than resuming an ancient family feud that would ruin my tamale dinner. We felt like we were on that icy road heading toward the ditch. The buzzing/ringing in my ears was saying, "No soup for you!"
My vision was beginning to fail, meaning I was about to go down, when I saw them embracing. So, there was no feud ... I took a shallow breath ...
They were smiling and they weren't blaming us for resurrecting memories of ex-husbands and long parted families. I took a second, deeper breath ... My vision was returning.
We let them catch up, but only until I could see again and not so much that the tamales got cold.
Anne is a single parent now estranged from her only child. When she finds work, it usually involves intense physical labor. She is easy to find at the local farmers market where she is often helping out different farmers setting up and taking down their stalls. Anne heats her home with, and cooks on, a wood-burning stove. She chops her own wood - not only because she can, but because she must. To say she doesn't have a lot of money would be an exaggeration.
Sarah, Anne's distant relation through long sundered marriages, is also a single parent with a grown daughter and now finds herself in the enviable position of getting that "second chance" with a child that so many of us wish for. Only Sarah's second chance involves raising both daughter and grandchild while working full time. And she is at the age where trips to the doctor are less and less about routine check ups and more and more about diagnostic lab work, exploratory surgery and potentially serious diagnoses.
And then there's Job. A retired pastor, he's spending his first Christmas alone after putting his wife of more than 50 years in a full-time care facility - living with a spouse with Alzheimer's had finally become more than he could handle. His son-in-law, his daughter's husband and also his good friend, was recently diagnosed with an aggressive and incurable cancer. Oh, and Job's sister died on Sunday. He'll bury her on Thursday.
And it wasn't just Job, Sarah and the Queen who brought their broken-ness to the table. To say that my life is all in order or that we host these dinners so people can lay their burdens at our feet or across our broad shoulders is beyond laughable. Between us all, this had the potential of being a real downer of a Christmas. I even picked out the perfect carol** for us to sing:
Merry Christmas! (Ungh)
Merry Christmas! (Ungh)
Sickness, Sorrow and Despair
People dying everywhere
Merry Christmas! (Ungh)
Merry Christmas! (Ungh)
So our gift exchange began with an appetizer of unexpected family reunion and continued with soup. It's a tasty but spicy broth, muy caliente, according to some and it went well as our gathering of the wounded shared stories of recent hurts, old scars, and present dangers. As we moved to the tamales (also on the caliente side) we began to speak to one another about some of our very real doubts and fears.
But moving on to dessert the Spirit of God, perhaps recognizing an appropriate moment, reminded us that not all of life is too hot to handle.
Our dessert came from Queen Anne's kitchen and she truly shared of her wealth and from the abundance given her. She chopped wood (the weather was mild that day) and fired up the oven. Then she baked not one, but three of the most beautiful and amazing pies we've ever had. I'd like to think that her generosity comes from God (because, where else can it come from?) and that deep down she knows that she can share this because in the Kingdom of Now and Yet Again there is enough for everyone. I also hope that somewhere, deep down, she also knows that she (along with anyone else who seeks God) is considered royalty in God's realm.
And part way through dinner, Sarah laughed. Why, at an age when we wonder what the doctor's next bit of bad news will be, are we not only raising our children but our children's children as well? And Sarah laughed? There are many reasons to laugh: One might say laughing is better than crying. Someone else might admit that there will always be those times when we have to laugh at ourselves and our helplessness. I think another reason Sarah laughed is because she loves her daughter more than anything and her granddaughter is the joy of her life. And maybe our Sarah also laughed because in God's Now and Yet Again Kingdom she knows that she won't be alone. Besides, laughing makes it easier to smile when help comes from expected places.
Then there's our old friend Job. How often do we find ourselves alone and unable to find comfort, or wind up in that foreign place of being unable to offer comfort because our own grief threatens to swallow us? Our Job asked some really hard questions on Christmas Eve. None of us had answers but we were able to offer our hands, shoulders and hearts to him. And our Job decided, for that night and the next day anyway, to remain faithful and to trust in the God of "Now and Yet Again," the God who restores all things and makes all things new.
And so the gift exchange continued through dessert. Prompted by Anne's generosity we forgot about singing "Ungh" as we each took turns listening, offering both ears and tears. We offered each other our shoulders and hands and responded with hugs and silent prayers. We held each other up that night and I'd like to think that during this dysfunctional family gathering God, even though there were no happy Hallmark endings, was in our midst.
The griefs and the comforts we shared reminded me of words from Jesus, the Grown-Up Christmas Child, in Matthew 5:
“Blessed are the poor ..."
“Blessed are those who mourn ..."
“Blessed are those who are humble ... "
*Not their real names
** Sung to the tune of "Happy Birthday! (Ungh)"