Last year I served dinner with my church group at a homeless shelter. We were back from Italy on business, and living in one of the nicest suburbs of San Diego. Life was ideal. Oh, we had all the normal problems and stresses of life, but things were going well. We had nothing more serious to worry about than which relatives to spend which days with at Christmas. As I walked into the dining room of the shelter with plate after plate of ham, potatoes and green beans, smiling and wishing a Merry Christmas as I put down each plate, I noticed the murals on the walls.
They were paintings of Jesus, teaching and healing. Each was accompanied by a short Bible verse: “Come unto me all ye that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” or “I am the light and the life of the world.” The messages and the pictures transfixed me suddenly. Among all those people without roofs over their heads or food to feed their families, I felt that those messages could not be for me. I had a home and food, and Christmas presents for my children. I lived in Italy and ran my own business. I had never been in need. Those comforting words were for people who really needed them, not for me. Wistfully, I pictured for a moment what it might be like to hear Him saying those things to me. Then I shook my head a little, and went back to serving dinners.
That Christmas seems centuries away from me now. Last week, Tony got his fifth new job in past six months. I try to downplay our financial difficulties to myself, but we have almost had our water shut off, been to the Bishop’s storehouse, wondered how we would pay rent, and felt a host of other financial pressures during those months. And the emotional pressures have been equally overwhelming. I didn’t want Christmas to come this year. I was not emotionally prepared. It took us three or four days before we could bring ourselves to decorate the tree, even after it dried out from the rain. It stood in the living room, bare except for white lights, reminding me of how inadequate I feel to accomplish any Christmas traditions. We started our advent calendar late, and yesterday we had to catch up a week after we fell behind again. And even if I had any money to do anything, I’m not sure I could.
But somehow, the quiet gifts have trickled in. The grandmas each sent a box full of presents. During the week of that wild storm, somebody gave us a cord of firewood, so our house is warm. Somehow, we got our Christmas letter written. When we went caroling with homemade treats, we met our elderly Italian neighbor, Domenico. He was delighted with our visit and our carefully practiced carol in Italian. We spent an hour on his doorstep as he reminisced to us, speaking as if he hadn’t had someone to talk to in years. It was wonderful, especially in the middle of all our difficulties, to feel that we had really made a difference to a lonely person.
And yesterday . . . yesterday was a rough day. I know because I almost had a breakdown when Tony said he would be a half hour late from work. I’m just not ready for Christmas to come. Why can’t it wait until I feel competent to have a beautifully decorated house, several service projects planned, an elaborate set of traditions for every day in December, and a sense of peace and security?
But our wonderful Italian friends sent us a Christmas package. We opened it last night. It was panettone from their local bakery. I don’t know how to describe what panettone from Italy means to me. Maybe that even though we seem to have given up on our dreams, they haven’t given up on us. And that despite our unreliability and even our complete disappearance, somebody in Italy loves us.
The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone who thinks and feels with us, and who, though distant is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.
And last night, I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep at a little after ten o’clock when I heard the doorbell ring in a funny way, as if someone had pressed it in a hurry. It took a while for Tony to pull on clothes and stumble downstairs, half asleep. I heard the door open, but no voices, and in a few moments he came back up the stairs holding something. He turned on the light to show me what he had found on the porch. It was a jar full to the brim with pennies, nickles, dimes, quarters, and bills. We shook our heads in wonder. Of course we need the money. But even more, we need the sense that we are loved, that there is beauty in the world, that somehow, God has reached out to touch us.
I have no idea who left that jar on my porch, or what gave them the idea, or even how many months they have been putting coin after coin into it, or when they decided it was meant for us. But Christmas has finally come to me. I haven’t yet counted up the money in the jar, but I already know the value of the gift.
And so I thank you, whomever you are, and wish you a Merry Christmas. You couldn’t have known all the reasons your gift would mean so much to me. But the Giver of all gifts knows all, and so I give my thanks also to Him, trusting that somehow, in His own way, He will carry my thanks to you.