December 25, 2002
Wesley, Doncaster East
What’s your most memorable Christmas?
I spent mine in a third-class compartment on an Indian train back in 1961. I’d attended the World Council of Churches Assembly in New Delhi, then gone to Azamgarh, a small town about 80 km north-east from Varanasi, where the Australian Methodist operated a small hospital. I’d travelled back to New Delhi to join some fellow-students from the United Theological College in South India. We were on the way to Allahabad to attend a YMCA conference. In the compartment was a Sikh, a turban over his uncut hair and comb, a steel bangle on his wrist, and, no doubt, wearing shorts and the sharp dagger-like kripān, every Sikh of the Khālsa Brotherhood wears. We sat quietly, somewhat in awe of him. It was he who overcame our apprehension. “You must be very happy today,” he said, “It’s Jesus’ birthday.”
Catherine’s was in 1960 - spent at her parents’ home in Lincoln, Virginia. She was there with her husband Peter John and their three children, as well as her sister and brother-in-law with their two children. The old farmhouse rang with the children’s exuberance.
On Christmas Eve the two older grandchildren prepared an improvised altar in front of the living-room fireplace. The youngest grandchildren lit the candles. Grandfather read the same story we heard this morning. Carols were sung. Grandma, the family story-teller, gave them an old favourite, Why the Chimes Rang. They could almost see the ragged little boy creeping up the long cathedral aisle to slip his gift on the altar.
The she said, “You know, I’d like to make a suggestion. The floor under the tree is piled high with gifts we’re giving to one another. But we’re celebrating Jesus’ birthday – not each other’s. This is his time of the year. What are we going to give to Jesus?”
She went on. “Let’s think about this for a moment. Then we’ll go around the circle and each of us will tell what gift we’ll place on the altar on Jesus’ birthday.”
Chester, just seven, crept close to his father for a whispered consultation, and then said shyly, “What I’d like to give Jesus this year is not to lose my temper anymore.”
Jeffrey, four, still having bed-wetting problems, was very specific: “I’ll give him my nappies.”
Winifred said softly that she’d give Jesus good marks in school. Len’s gift was “to be a better father - which means a gift of more patience.”
So it went on. Peter John’s was short but significant. “What I want to give to Christ is a more dedicated life.” Catherine remembered that promise five years later when he was ordained into Presbyterian ministry, and answered “I do so believe… I do so promise...” Yet that Christmas Eve that was probably the last thing on his mind.
Then it was Catherine’s father’s turn. “I certainly don’t want to inject too solemn a note into this, but, somehow, I know that this is the last Christmas I’ll be sitting in this room with my family gathered me like this.”
They all protested, by he wasn’t to be deterred. “No. I’ve so much want to say this. I’ve had a wonderful life. Long, long ago I gave my life to Christ. Though I’ve tried to serve him, I’ve failed him often. But he has blessed me with great riches – especially my family. I want to say this while you’re all here. I may not have another chance. Even after I go on into the next life, I’ll still be with you. And, of course, I’ll be waiting for each one of you there.”
There was love in his brown eyes. And tears in theirs. No one could speak for a moment.
He died five months later – on May 1st, as he was sitting in his chair in the village Post Office talking with friends. His heart stopped beating. He’d somehow known that the time was close.
Catherine never forgot that evening. For her it was a jewel of a moment set in the ordinary moments of life. For that brief time real values came clearly into focus: her father’s gratitude for life; her mother’s strong faith; her husband’s quiet strength, her son’s inner yearning shining through blurred youthful ambitions; the eager faces of children groping towards understanding and truth; the reality of the love of God as they all focussed on the One whose birthday they were celebrating.
It was Catherine Marshall’s most memorable Christmas.
Mend a quarrel
Seek out a lost friend
Dismiss suspicion and replace it with trust
Write a love letter
Share some treasure
Give a soft answer
Show your loyalty in word and deed
Keep a promise
Find the time
Forego a grudge
Forgive an enemy
Apologise, if you are wrong
Try to understand
Examine your demands on others
Think first of someone else
Be kind; be gentle
Laugh a little
Laugh a little more
Take up arms a against malice
Express your gratitude
Welcome a stranger
Gladden the heart of a child
Take pleasure in the beauty of the earth
Speak your love
Speak it again
Speak it still again