About From One Christmas to the Next...
This, and its sequel To Give and Receive with Grace, are about homelessness in our community right now. In the first one, Jacob, a Church Minister, who grew too liberal for his conservative congregation, has been fired. While wondering what to do as he house sits a friend’s place while the other man is studying overseas, he walks a lot of lonely streets. The story opens on Christmas Eve. To find how it ends, you’ll have to read about his chance meeting with an heiress in whose high-rise abused women can find sanctuary. You just have to get to the door and you’ll be safe. And Jacob runs the school for any children they bring. He’s agreed that he does not teach any religion - philosophy and critical thinking. That’s it.
FROM ONE CHRISTMAS TO THE NEXT
He hadn’t counted on going in. He’d just been too darned lonely house-sitting the place while its owner studied overseas. He really resented the inane or gratuitously violent TV offerings. So after his TV dinner, he’d just gone out, walking, till he got tired enough to sleep - just like every other night for the past six months. But who counted.
He had seen the bustle from a block away. Cars had been trying to get into the plugged parking lot. Lines of bundled up families chatted excitedly and called to each other as they converged. Bright light bathed the spire and filled the windows. He found himself trapped between clumps of people ahead and behind and fenced in by the solid row of parked cars to his left. The human tide simply herded him off the sidewalk with them and up the broader approach to the double doors.
Rather than step out of the line into the knee-deep snowbanks he decided he’d just go with the flow. It wasn’t that he didn’t know the drill. It was Christmas Eve. How many similar services had he conducted through his lifetime? It’s just he couldn’t do it any more. And he had nobody to not do it with either since Margaret had died back in the Spring.
The memory brought the image the Remembrance Cards the Funeral Home had produced. She had always demanded she be referred to as ‘Margaret’ never ‘Maggie’. A moment when he had called her that as he sang an old song about being young had set off an unexpected explosion. “I was named Margaret and that is the name on my Birth Certificate, and my Driver’s License and my bloody Passport,” she had shouted. “Get used to it!” She’d never sworn before or after.
Read on for more...
“OK,” he had said to himself halfway up the walk. “What else is there to do tonight, anyway?”
Most of the group ahead turned towards a side entrance - probably the Christian Education Wing or something similar - big gym, meeting rooms, kitchen, likely the church office. They left a pair of animated adults right in front of him. One pulled open the main door to let his partner enter and the two couples behind him all but pushed him inside. He took two more steps forward and the group closed ranks behind him - a solid wall of backs in wool worsted.
He reflexively pulled off his toque as he stepped through the inner vestibule doors into the sanctuary. Belatedly, he noticed he had passed the cloakrooms to the right and left just behind him. He had opened his coat. He’d be OK. At that moment he really just wanted to get out of the road of the people now fanned out behind him. Three large steps got him into a pew with an aisle seat. A mother tugged a child closer to her, leaving the seat open. When she gave his tousled hair, last cut six months ago, and his three-day stubble a second look, she moved the child to her other side giving as much space as possible between them and the vagrant she obviously thought he was.
Against the flow of new worshippers, an usher pushed towards him and handed him the Order of Service. He held it up to the mother next to him but she showed her own in response. No need to touch anything from him.
He leaned back after a glance at the decorative angels on the cover. It brought instant bile to his throat. When his wife died in the Spring his parishioners had said, so often that she had gone to be with the angels. “What a stupid thing to say,” he had finally burst out. “She was dust and returned to it. She lives only in our memories. There is no heavenly garden party going on.” He’d never said such things before.
“It’s the trauma of losing his spouse,” sympathetic listeners had said. “He will see God’s wisdom soon.” Didn’t happen.
He peeked behind the Christmas cover. The details were all he would have put in. Cast members for The Story were listed - Janine Walters, at two months old, got credit for being Baby Jesus. That made him chuckle. By the time he had finished his scan of the program, a child, with an adult at his elbow, had finished lighting the thick candles in the holders attached to the pews all the way from the front and was doing the last on the pew ahead of him. The child’s high stretch to touch the wick with the lighter was followed intently by his minder. When both candles lifted flames upward, they extinguished the lighter and made their way back to the front. Within moments, the harsh electric glare gave way to a muted yellow and shadowy gloom. Showtime.
Almost immediately, the candles overhead guttered frantically as the lead members of the choir entered the vestibule on a gust of wind. He could see the back end of the line-up through the side windows of the chancel as they scurried up the outside walkway, ready to process. From the speaker system a loud voice read from Isaiah 9:6 “For unto us a child is born, unto us ...”. Searing lances of light shot from projectors onto large screens at the front. The organ swelled and the choir lurched into step as they sang “O Come Molly Faithful.”
The congregation sang the right words clearly displayed on the screens. He just couldn’t help thinking of the corruption. Closely behind the choir, as they gathered in the chancel, was an unscripted character, frantically searching for seats. He beckoned late-comers, singly or pairs from where they were queued. Into the space ahead of him slid a beautifully dressed woman - late thirties early forties, he guessed. The beige, felted bycocket hat was what Robin Hood wore but this had a rakish slash of pheasant feather. From beneath the hat, a smooth blond coiffure peaked out, every hair in place. It was her fur coat that stopped traffic. It was likely mink, wide- lapelled, a dazzling gold broach. She slid into place during the ‘Amen’ and sat gracefully .
Mary and Joseph had appeared at this elbow in another wind gust. The two-child donkey brought up the rear. While they walked slowly up the centre aisle, a cluster of shepherds in bathrobes appeared on stage left.
“And suddenly there was with the angel, a multitude of the heavenly host proclaiming ...,” declared the narrator.
“Glory to God ...,” raggedly declared the choir with full organ.
As the young shepherds skipped up one side aisle and back on the other, the choir finished. The peasants were in place on cue to adore Baby Jesus who had suddenly appeared in the crèche.
The service continued for him on auto-pilot. “These people really believed this happened,” he thought. “Don’t they know it is just a story Matthew, or whoever, made up. It’s a terrific story sure and it has stood the test of time. But it was not a news report. If you wanted to be important in that day, you had to be a firstborn, had to be born miraculously, had to have supernatural cheerleaders. The story they were acting out didn’t happen. It was written a century after the event and had a whole different purpose - politics.”
He was the evidence that people did, in fact, think they were repeating history. When he had declared the benefits of centuries of biblical study to his flock, he had found his ‘Call’ was withdrawn. That is why he had left his congregation - fired - by truths no one wanted to hear and by hard leaders who were heard. And the Chair of the Board’s wife wore a coat exactly like the one sitting in front of him.
With each entry of the magi, the candles in front of him flared and thrashed about hysterically. In fact, the ones above the mink coat had created large wells of liquid around the wicks. They would surely pour down on the poor woman if the thin walls holding them were breached. He touched her shoulder to warn her as they were standing for the last hymn.
The stir of people rising, flicked the flame just enough to do what he feared. He caught the movement peripherally as he was reaching forward. He jammed his program upward as he pushed the lady sideways into her neighbours. Hot wax burned his thumb but the paper caught and diverted the first molten blob. The lady turned and shrieked at the rough man who had tried to take her coat, just as the congregation broke into song. She clutched her coat to her with one hand and stared at him in terror, her other arm lifted in defence. A seat mate pulled her away. “As with gladness men of old ...” the congregation sang. Few noticed the discord but strong hands quickly grabbed him from behind and pulled him towards the vestibule.
“I was trying to catch the wax,” he had explained to the usher over the music. He showed his reddened, wax-covered skin.
“Put out those candles. They’ll hurt someone.”
The man looked back uncertainly. The second candle’s pool of wax dribbled suddenly. Both long exposed wicks blazing threateningly. Another usher had seen the same thing and was carrying a chair into place. He needed hands to steady him as he reached to pinch out the flame.
“Stay away from her,” the attendant ordered and turned to help his friend. “Amen.”
The congregation had been invited to share refreshments in the Hall. Again he was nudged into the migration by others.
The cool mug of cider felt good on his hurt hand as he stood, tucked into a corner, alone in the crowd. A few sips and he’d had enough. He’d seen a route through the mob of smiling talkers.
“Hard to top it when your first role is Son of God,” one loud voice declared to the young Mother.
“Daughter of God,” had corrected what probably was her father. Everyone laughed.
He had set his mug on a window ledge. When he turned to go, his way was blocked by the lady in mink. “I’ve been watching you. You are not who I thought.” She took another deep breath. “I behaved badly,” she said. “I want to apologize.” Smoothing her coat, she continued, “You saved me from a painful injury. I would like to give you a Christmas gift, ... if you would accept one.” It seemed a concession to a decision that wasn’t hers to make. “What is something you’d like this Christmas?” It was a now a directive.
The wave-off and cruel rebuke that was on his lips, waiting, disappeared as he drew breath. He let out a sigh and said instead, “Would you share a coffee and muffin at the coffee shop on the corner, say tomorrow about eleven? It would be a good reason for me to get out of bed.”
The request had caught the lady completely off guard. “... if you aren’t too busy,” he had continued.
“... Right,” she drawled cynically, and turned away at a hail from a friend.
That was why he was here, at this table in an empty coffee shop, clean-shaven, with faint hope, and hair raked into place, wondering if he should get up and get his own drink and bun. The parking lot was empty, three cars were lined up at the drive-thru. The door behind him scraped, causing him to turn. Coming toward him, in a white parka with a fur-lined hood turned up and removing purple suede gloves, was the lady from last night.
She stuck out her hand assertively. “I don’t think I caught your name last night. I’m Maggie.”