Christmas, the very word evokes a myriad of images, thoughts and memories. Some of these warm our heart, others open the door of long locked rooms we would rather leave closed, still others bring joy and delight. When we reflect upon Christmas’s of yesteryear, I am reminded of the master storyteller Charles Dickens, who wrote the magnificent A Christmas Carol. You will recall the story, how the miser Ebenezer Scrooge, is visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Along the way, he gains insights and has a chance of changing how he lives his life. This change has a remarkable effect upon those around him.
With great honour to Charles Dickens, I want to use his imagery of Christmas Past, Present and Future to share stories from Christmas Days of my Past, and how they still visit me today in the Present and hopefully will continue to influence the Future living of my days.
The Spirit of Christmas Past takes me to a small bedroom in a terraced house in Liverpool, UK. It is a Christmas morning; I discover a large pillowcase at the end of my bed, filled with toys and all kinds of eatable things. Santa Claus had been, what a wonder filled moment of enchantment.
Now that I am a parent and grandparent, I can truly say, the delight and ecstasy, which children experience and clearly demonstrate on a Christmas morning, is something to treasure for parents and grandparents. The Spirit of my Christmas Past reminds us, we adults often forget that within us, there is an inner child who waits longingly to play, laugh and enjoy life. We adults can be too serious, with life being one long round of work and doing stuff without moments of play and delight. Take time this Christmas, to play, laugh and celebrate the richness of being alive with those you love. Perhaps let Santa visit you again…..
The Spirit of Christmas Past, brings me to a 1967, it is a cold Christmas Day; the time is around 4.30 pm in the afternoon. I am a young Police Officer walking the beat around the slums of inner City Liverpool. I have had my Christmas Dinner; I wanted to put my feet up. I knew of a recently abandoned house waiting for demolition, with some old chairs, which would be ideal for a quiet sit down out of the cold wind. Making my way there, I take a short cut along an alleyway, as I came out of the alley on to a main road, there in front of me was a man lying in the middle of the road, he had been hit by a car. I offered first aid, but he died in my presence.
The Spirit of Christmas Past reminds me, that this person’s death had a profound effect on my life, for it brought me face to face with the unpredictable nature of life. Yes, I had seen people dead before, but this person died in my presence. I realised, that I was powerless in death’s presence, and I too was mortal, it was a wakeup call to appreciate the gift of life. Now nearly fifty years later, the power of that call to appreciate life still rings loud within me.
The Spirit of Christmas Past continues to take me on a journey, I find myself at a small green keepers cottage on the Gore Golf Course, in Southland, New Zealand. It is Christmas Day 1974; Fleur and I and our two small children have been invited to have Christmas dinner with this family. We were, feeling very homesick, our first Christmas away from family in the UK. Upon entering this small cottage, we felt the warmth of the coal fire, the smell of the turkey roasting and the embracing love of a wonderful couple Tom and Nancy. Then as we were eating our dinner, it snowed, covering the golf course, the scene was like picture perfect Christmas card.
When I think of that Christmas Day, I am reminded by the Spirit of Christmas Past, how Fleur and I, felt uncertain about being in New Zealand, homesickness was present, yet, upon entering that cottage, for a little while we no longer felt strangers in a strange land, rather, we felt we belonged, and among new friends who took us into their hearts. There is a postscript to this story, this particular couple, supported us financially, while I undertook my theological training for a period of three years. I give thanks to God for Tom and Nancy and their wonderful love and support to us newly arrived immigrants to New Zealand.
The Spirit of Christmas Past continues to remind me of Christmas Days Past, it was 1978 and we were having the last Christmas in our flat at the Baptist Theological College, which at that time was in Remuera, Auckland. Fleur and I wanted to demonstrate to our children, that at Christmas, it is important to invite people to share our Christmas lunch who would be spending the day alone, so we invited a few extra people to sit around our table. One of those invited was a man who had contracted polio as a child and walked with the aid of two sticks. My daughter who was only three at the time was curious why he needed sticks. The man graciously explained to her and my sons something about his own life journey. It was a learning experience for us all.
After the Spirit of Christmas Past showed me that Christmas, I recalled a favourite of story of mine:
The Israeli violinist Yitzhak Perlman contracted polio at the age of 4. Ever since, he has had to wear metal braces on his legs and walk with crutches, yet he became one of the great virtuosi of our time.
On one occasion, the story is told; he came out onto the stage at a concert to play a violin concerto. Laying down his crutches, he placed his violin under his chin and began tuning the instrument, when with an audible crack, one of the strings broke. The audience were expecting him to send for another string, but instead he signalled the conductor to begin, and he proceeded to play the concerto entirely on three strings. At the end of the performance the audience gave him a standing ovation and called on him to speak. What he said, so the story goes, was this ‘Our task is to make music with what remains.’
That was a comment on more than a broken violin string. It was a comment on his paralysis and on all that is broken in life. When we use what we have available to us to create and achieve, something powerful happens, others are blessed and we too are blessed. This applies to us individually and together as a community.
My journey with the Spirit of Christmas Past continues, I visit many different places my memories are evoked. I am uncertain which one to share with you. I decide on Christmas Day 2005. The place is Alice Springs, in the Northern Territory of Australia. Fleur and I have just hosted 36 people at the Manse for Christmas Dinner. The main course is slowly coming to an end, Fleur and I clear away empty dishes and plates while others prepare the desserts. A mobile phone rings, it is answered by a pilot from the Royal Flying Doctor Service; he is called out for an emergency flight to a remote Aboriginal Community in South Australia, to collect an Aboriginal woman who had complications with her pregnancy. He asks if I would like to go along, who could turn down such an opportunity?
Fleur graciously allowed me to go, while she continued hosting our guests. You can imagine how excited I felt, while we drove to the Alice Springs Airport, after the two-engine plane was checked, we took off and headed south. To fly in such a small plane, through the blue cloudless sky, with the red earth of Central Australia below, was a truly breath taking memorable experience. After about forty minutes flying time the plane landed at a remote Aboriginal Community, I had an opportunity to leave the plane and take a short walk. The temperature was well over 40 degrees Celsius with a gently breeze. From the airstrip I could see houses and I wondered what life was like for these people who lived in this remote community. The medical staff treated the woman and she was safely brought back to Alice.
Since that Christmas Day, I have often reflected on such a wonderful experience and how life in the Outback is very different to life in Auckland. Yet, there are times in both places, when we need silence, not just silence of a place, but an inner silence, times of quiet when the Spirit can refresh us. The following is a blessing we sang at the John Flynn Memorial Church in Alice Springs I offer it to you:
For you, deep stillness of the silent inland;
For you, deep blue of the desert skies;
For you, flame red of the rocks and stones;
For you, sweet water from hidden springs.
From the edges seek the heartlands,
and when you’re burnt from the journey,
may the cool winds of the hovering spirit
soothe and replenish you.
In the name of Christ.
I want to include, with something which may appear at first glance very different, but actually brings the Spirit of Christmas Past, Present and Future together. I discovered this wonderful piece of writing from G. K. Chesterton (29 May 1874 – 14 June 1936 Writer, Poet, Philosopher, Lay Theologian and Christian Apologist)
Chesterton saw the world differently than just about everyone else. He seemed to live in a state of inexhaustible wonder. It’s almost as if the scales had fallen from his eyes and he could see the heavenly realm co-mingling with the earthly. For him, the universe must have been like a string that vibrated with the paradox of Emmanuel, “God with us.” I recently discovered something Chesterton wrote about Santa Claus for the Tablet of London.
- K. Chesterton on Santa Claus:
What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way.
As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good – far from it. And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me. . . .
What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea.
Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.
Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few pounds and crackers. Now, I thank him for stars and street faces, and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking.
Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.
The Spirit of Christmas Past invites us to delight in the Spirit of Christmas Present, with wonder and joy. For who knows what enchanting moments Santa Claus will present to us …… if we will only open our eyes, ears, hearts and hands.
Meanwhile peace and moments of delightful wonder to you this Christmas