Christmas Visitor 🎄

by Larry Patten

Christmas was weeks away when a stranger arrived at the church I then served. He told the receptionist he needed a priest.

I assumed seeking a priest meant he was Roman Catholic. A few minutes into our conversation, he said he wasn’t Catholic. Then he randomly added his prior employment was in Hollywood, with work on several “major motion pictures.” Did he think me similar to the movie priests comforting anxious souls, or a fatherly Father receiving confession from the dying—and dramatically lighted—hero?

Did he want money?

I was wrong about his faith background. I was also wrong about his reason for stopping at a church. My guess was he hoped for a few bucks to pay rent, a motel, a bus ticket home, a sick kid waiting in the car, or for a rebuilt carburetor? In the churches I served, there were countless need-cash-now! requests, accompanied by stories about real (and fake) sick children and, yes, once a carburetor. Some begged. Some demanded.

But he never requested money.

He did mention booze. After eight months of sobriety, he’d fallen off the proverbial wagon. His world was, again, in crisis.

So, what did he want?

“A few kind words.”

Really, that was his request: prayer and kind words. I think he longed for me, the priest he suddenly must see, to offer insights that might transform his life. Or maybe he wanted a break from the cold since Christmas double dates with winter in my part of the world.

He talked. We prayed. I prodded him with tough questions. I actually believed much of what he shared, though I never knew which was fact versus fiction. Both versions were likely part of his unsettled history.

He was slender, with uncombed brown hair and gray eyes. Those eyes frequently avoided me, but whenever our gaze met there were equal parts melancholy and self-pity. His litany of sorrows was familiar: booze, a girlfriend who’d left, and no job. Except they were his sorrows. No matter how common, they added to his unique, here-and-now distress.

My visitor had arrived in early December when the Advent scriptures read before Christmas were frequently grim accounts of the “end times.” Take Luke 21:34-35 for example:

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catches you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.

Dissipation. Drunkenness. The ancient words, had my visitor read them, might have caused additional remorse and fear. Not fear for the “face of the whole earth,” but for his face in the mirror. The Biblical verses before Christmas warn of God’s anger or they confront God’s absence. In Nora Gallagher’s Things Seen and Unseen, she visited a friend dying from cancer not long before Christmas.

She said her pain “obliterated my sense of humor, my confidence, my joy in other people, even my easiness in prayer. Through it all I have held on to one message—‘I will be with you,’” she said. “But I reply, ‘Where are you exactly, Lord?’”

Where indeed?

Winter days are short and cold. And every year, as the nights lengthen, churches display the greenery, trim the candles, and tell tales about Bethlehem. Joseph and Mary’s sojourn is casually romanticized inside and outside of sanctuaries. Here comes young Mary astride a donkey, sturdy Joseph grasping the reins, with the couple silhouetted against the full moon. It’s easy to add cheerful details in our Christmas carols, pageants, and displays. After all, we know things went well for the holy family.

Or did they?

Whether a fervent or casual believer, we forget the whole Christmas tale. Soon cruel King Herod will sense fear and wield the sword. A trip to Egypt won’t be another step for Joseph’s family, but a desperate escape from the king’s vanity and savagery. Fanciful, factual, or faithful, the nights leading to and from Christmas are long. The road is hard. Every decision entails a gamble.

I listened to my Christmas visitor, who was burdened with misery. He was lost. He asked the “Where is God?” and “Who am I?” questions. At one point he shared about his mother, admitting he missed her.

Gesturing to my phone, I said, “Call her. Now.”

He did. But she knew her son, about his drinking and weaknesses. She knew his real needs were far beyond what she, in her love, could offer. She told me, for we also talked, that she’d welcome him into her home—again—but would prefer he’d enter a facility for professional help. In her calm voice, in her motherly anguish, she was willing to accept him and accept more inevitable pain.

He had excuses.

“There are only idiots at Alcoholics Anonymous,” he muttered.

Prior stints in rehab had been, “Totally useless.”

It’s the alcohol talking. It’s the remnants of pride talking. I offered to drive him to a place here where he could get help.

“Not right now. Maybe later.”

I suggested calling a church member involved with AA. He shook his head. No way.

He stood, asked for a hug. We embraced, and then he was gone.

I have reminded congregations—and myself—that Joseph and Mary were on a journey of faith. Was it historic or symbolic or both? I don’t believe Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Scholars more knowledgeable than me have analyzed Luke and Matthew’s theological agendas regarding Jesus’ birth stories. The faith is exuberant but the facts are suspect. Befuddled shepherds? Angelic hosts? Wise guys? Maybe they were all present, maybe none were. But let’s not debate our heartfelt traditions.

It was and is a journey.

Renewed life is often found when scary, hesitant steps are ventured into the gloom. Martin Luther wrote, “Faith is permitting ourselves to be seized by the things we do not see.” My Christmas visitor sought a priest. I tried to represent God’s love and hope. I also acknowledged the rugged road and dark night, honoring a Bethlehem star that may be myth, metaphor, or miracle—and yet still beckons us to risk a new, unknown future.

Larry Patten is a retired United Methodist pastor living in Fresno, California. He has worked in churches, hospices, and campus ministry. His writing has appeared in publications such as The Christian CenturySpirituality & Health, and Ruminate. He is the author of A Companion for the Hospice Journey.

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