An Old Christmas Sermon

You never know what will be remembered.
    She recalls a sermon I preached some three decades ago. It was the late-night Eucharist on Christmas Eve, the principal service of our cozy parish. We had recently begun sponsoring some Ethiopian orphans through the Anglican Communion and had been studying their Christmas customs—which were quite different from ours. There was something about men on horseback racing through villages, trying to hit a wooden ball with sticks as they hope to score a goal, in a game called "nativity." They had no presents, no holiday tree, no Christmas shopping season—and still they had Christmas.
    Then I pushed the matter further, and this is what she remembers.
    Suppose (I said) you go home tonight after this service, unlock your door, flip the light—and nothing happens. You find a flashlight and look around, your eyes following the narrow cone of dim light, and turn the corner into your living room: and there is a big empty hole. When you left to come to church a few hours ago you had a small mountain of brightly colored boxes—not one of them is there. Even the tree is gone, the ornaments, the string of lights, all gone. You quickly turn your light to the windows, the walls, the doors—there is no sign of violence or mayhem, no broken glass, no damage to the door, no (come to think of it) litter of dry evergreen needles on the carpet. You stop and listen as hard as you can and all you can hear is nothing—not even the sound of the refrigerator. You rush back to the kitchen: at least that's still there, but you open it, and shine in the light, and find that although the milk and the cheese and the ketchup and all the other ordinary refrigerator litter is there, the Christmas goose, the Christmas dinner, is gone. It seems that someone has come into your house and removed every trace of Christmas (but nothing else) and has left as invisibly as he, or she, or they, came.
    I asked—it was a refrain that night—Would it still be Christmas? Not on account of a feeling of violation or danger; rather, just sheer loss: all these things which our American world tells us mean Christmas, make Christmas, are perfect for Christmas—if all these things vanished, would it still be Christmas?
    I let the question hang there, but of course everyone answered in his or her heart: of course, yes, it would still be Christmas.
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    That she remembers it is one of those deeply encouraging things. Teachers sometimes get this, and doctors, and former neighbors; it can happen to any of us. One day you get an email from someone who knew you back when, and she says how much something you did has meant to her. You might not even remember it; at the time you might not have even known what you were doing. But there it is: you made a difference. Or more precisely: God used you to make a difference.
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    We all went home after midnight, and everyone’s Christmas tree was still there.
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    Out & About. I am to preach this Sunday, December 12, at the contemporary services at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, at 9 and 11:15 a.m.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."