Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Christmas Eve Last Year

When I looked up, he had come in the sanctuary. All day he had lurked, hanging out around the back in the narthex. Earlier in the week he had asked if he could paint a mural on the large panes of glass in the Narthex and Wednesday I was amazed by the explosion of color and the detail. He had painted an angel – a large masculine angel that would need to tell me to “be not afraid.” There was a column of light streaming from the Angel’s mouth to an extremely well painted and detailed homeless man lying on a park bench. On the side panels, much smaller he had painted the traditional nativity scene and a Christmas tree. He surrounded the base of the painting with poinsettias and they made the painting looked oddly three-dimensional and as if it were floating on a sea of crimson.

Christmas Eve is always very difficult. Five worship service – 1500 people, communion, candles, acolytes canceling, acolyte substitutions, clergy canceling, clergy substitutions, ill-prepared lay readers. Spilled communion cup, the unexpected “screeeeech” of a tray being drug across glass during a prayer. And he lurked – all day, never entering into the sanctuary. I didn’t know his story – still don’t know the complete story. Fifty-ish, unmarried, slow to speech, grizzled, one squared off yellowed tooth broken off – perhaps a fight, yet a paradox – he seems a gentle man. His best friend in the world died of cancer in October and the grief is raw – perhaps too raw since his friend’s favorite holiday was Christmas and had a Christmas themed funeral.

He lurked during the first service. We left the doors open to the Narthex and I saw him stand in the doorway, shifting from foot to foot. Slowly shifting, then rapidly. Then slow again. I watched him from my seat in the Chancel. I could sense his alienation. He wrung his baseball cap in his hand. I’ve read that phrase before, but never really ever saw it. He twisted it between his two hands distorting its shape. I could feel his emotions – strong, even at a distance. At 4:00, during the children’s nativity, I was a shepherd with a large crook in the children’s do-it-yourself nativity and I watched him skitter away from the children’s constant motion and activity. At 6:00, he was in the parking lot, then the children’s hall, then the parking lot – always moving. At 8:00, he took up his post at the doorway, shifting from foot to foot.

At the communion service at 11:00, when I looked up, he had come into the sanctuary. He sat in the very last pew, close to the door. I didn’t really expect him to stay, but he did. He didn’t sing – during the carols, he just stared and clenched his jaw. He didn’t join the responsive readings but he did join the line for communion. My friend Jack gave him bread. I offered the cup – when he dipped his bread I covered his hand with mine and said, “The blood of Christ, given for you” and looked into his large expressive eyes. He went and knelt at the rail, covering his face with his hands. Later, when he left the church, I shook his hand. In one jerky motion, he hugged me. I felt his hot tears on my cheek when he laid his next to mine. I asked him where he was going tomorrow.

“I’m going to my brother’s house. He is dying of Leukemia. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

I hugged him again and told him I would be thinking of him – praying for him. I couldn’t let him go. Others streamed out of the church and I had to split my attention. Oh, God! Where did he go? I looked for him and waved across the parking lot. He shuffled slowly away.

There are days that I shift from foot to foot, not feeling welcome in the sanctuary. The are days when the alienation seems too great. But we can be healed. The body of Christ can hold us in their arms – the body and blood can nourish and we can be healed. A year later, his brother has died and has been buried. But God does provide. He has a girlfriend and rumor has it that there will be a wedding in the near future. Love has reached across centuries and with the birth of one small baby, light and love have come into this world. Hold the baby close this season; hold the baby close to your heart.

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