Part 1: Elena’s story
Elena Bogren paused at the kitchen window as a scene from across the street caught her eye. The front door was open, a slim figure silhouetted in the light spilling out from the Kelly’s festive entry way. Elena had a glimmer of recognition for that slight, erect frame. “Well, little Johnny made it in after all. Late, as usual,” Elena observed wryly. “That boy!” As she was remembering a much younger Johnny playing in her own front yard, a much plumper and somewhat stooped figure stepped up to enfold the young man in her outstretched arms. Elena could not help letting her eyes linger on the tender scene.
A moment later, Grandma Kelly glanced up from the embrace of her grandson to meet Elena’s eyes across the way. She gazed for a long second before turning to usher the young man into their annual family gathering. Elena’s brief surge of warmth on glimpsing her neighbors’ celebration now turned to burning shame at her own awkward gawking. It was not her party, after all. She turned back to the painful task at hand.
Her mother’s recipe books had plenty of ways to bake a ham; that certainly was not the problem. Jim had brought an enormous spiral-sliced beauty home this evening, the perfunctory gift from his office managers, and beamed as he set it down among cans of sweet potatoes and English peas. “I didn’t want you to have to shop for the fixings,” he proclaimed as he planted a sweet kiss on her cheek. “Thank you for doing this,” he added.
That cheek had seen more than one tear brushed away this evening. She must not let Jim see how badly it hurt to attempt this meal her mother’s loving hands had prepared so many times. Elena had assured Jim he would have Christmas Eve dinner, and a dinner he would have. She had resolved in her heart that no matter how badly it hurt, she would make it happen. Lord knows, he deserved that much. She had turned down his offer of help with the few preparations this one required and shooed him away to his armchair to relax with the paper, a pleasure he had only recently returned to occasionally enjoying.
Jim had supported her unflinchingly as her mother lost her battle, painful day by excruciating day, with cancer. He managed so well over those months, surviving on take-out food, sandwiches, and whatever a can could afford. Elena had only to focus on her mother’s care during the darkest days of her life. Jim had been her rock through those final hours and the service that followed, just three weeks ago.
She thought she had been handling the meal prep stoically enough until the door across the street had opened. The floodgate of her own happy Christmas Eve memories flew open with it: the faces aglow from the fireplace, little ones nestled in the laps of parents and grandparents, Christmas carols forming the backdrop for happy conversation.
Elena’s siblings and grown children had been spared facing this first empty holiday in the home where they had made lifelong memories. Elena did not expect any of them to make another trip to spend Christmas here, after they had exhausted leave time and finances to be with their mother and grandmother at the end. She had assured them she was fine.
Though she had tried to brace herself for what she knew would be difficult, Elena had not anticipated the pain simply preparing a meal, with the glow of a “normal” Christmas Eve so nearby, could bring. And when that glow had burst into even more robust light shining through her own windows, Elena did not bother to look out again at the beautiful decorations she knew the Kelly’s must have just powered on. She focused anew on her resolve to pull this one off for Jim, but she grew more convinced that Christmas was not a season she would celebrate ever again after tonight.
Part 2: The Keene’s story
“Looks like the Kelly’s are getting things kicked off in style again,” Ralph said to Jack, his faithful Schnauzer. Just as he had reached down to pick up the evening paper the lights had blazed to life down the street: not the inside lights–those seemed to have been burning around the clock for the last few days—but the brilliance of their outdoor Christmas decorations, worked on for weeks, but by their unique family tradition, only brought to life the night before Christmas.
“Probably has a lot to do with the power bill,” grunted Ralph, who knew Tom Kelly to be thrifty fellow. Gail Kelly on the other hand, “Grandma” to most, always got her way somehow, when it came to doing Christmas in a big fashion. Despite himself, Ralph had to admire the display a minute before heading back to rejoin his wife in their dimly lit home.
The sight of Cathy’s slumped shoulders with her back to the window and face toward that door–the one she almost never opened anymore–brought fresh pain to his heart. The Kelly’s yard decorations were now casting a soft halo of light around the frame of Jerry’s door. Ralph knew what his wife was thinking. He, too, pictured the mornings that door had burst open when little Jerry could stand the wait no longer. Ralph could still hear his scurrying feet and his gleeful voice urging them into the living room on Christmas mornings.
Cathy had seemed to enjoy those mornings as much as Jerry, and Ralph had to admit they were his joy, as well. Being able to provide a “good Christmas” for their only son had put extra pride in his fatherly heart. It made the long hours he spent away at work seem less of a burden. At this moment he wished for some of those hours back to just toss a ball around with his son.
“Cathy, maybe we should go out for a drive, find some place to grab a bite to eat. Don’t you want to get out for a little bit?” He always wanted to take her pain if he could, to fix things.
“If there is somewhere we could go that it wouldn’t be Christmas,” she snapped. Cathy wondered again why the whole world had to go so crazy over a day on the calendar. They assumed everyone was merry and bright. She only wanted to hide away until the madness ended. “I wish those infernal Kelly’s would stop imposing their perfect family celebration on the rest of us,” she added. “People should realize Christmas just isn’t for everyone.”
Part 3: Tawana’s story
Sin hurt worse at Christmas. Any other day, one could put off the effects of having alienated family and abandoned beliefs for a life of promised pleasure. One could believe on any other day that the promise would be realized somehow. But this night it was all pain and loneliness.
On her way back to a house that was not was not home, Tawana paused heavy steps for a moment outside the window of the only home on this street lit up for the holidays. She remembered how her father had decorated for her every year, a lifetime ago. As she was about to continue toward the place where another man was waiting, she heard a deep, aged voice as a man began to speak, the words carrying through the window into the cold air.
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.” Visions of little boys in bathrobes and girls in angel costumes flooded Tawana’s mind. She wanted to run from the pain of those memories, but her feet seemed riveted to the sidewalk for some reason.
“…Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger…” Why was she still standing here? She had realized a long time ago Christmas was not—and never would be again—for anyone like her.
Part 4: The Kelly’s story
“Grandpa, why did they invite the shepherds to Jesus’ birthday?” Little Rod was always interrupting, and his mother’s stern glance had no effect.
“What, Rod? What do you mean?” the booming voice replied, not without some irritation.
“Well, the rich wise men were on their way with the presents, right?”
“Yes, the wise men were traveling to seek the newborn king and came some time later. Can we finish the story now?”
“But wasn’t that enough for baby Jesus? Why would they want the old smelly shepherds to come to their party, too?”
Something in Rod’s innocent voice arrested Grandpa Kelly’s heart. He knew why the outcast shepherds had been invited to the birthplace of the King of Kings. Rev. Tom Kelly, retired from many years pastoring a flock, remembered the hurting people he had reached out to over the years and the joy of seeing hope come into their eyes. The youngster’s question touched what had been burdening his mind this holiday season. Now, he could put it into words.
“You see, Rod, Jesus wasn’t coming just for those wise men, and He did not care so much about their gifts. When He grew up and started His ministry, the folks He touched first and most often were the hurting, the lonely, and the poor—people like those shepherds.”
“People like that lady outside, Grandpa?” Rod was pointing to the front window. All eyes turned to see a slim disheveled figure go pale and turn away.
“Just like her,” Grandpa exclaimed and moved quicker than he had in a while. Bounding to the front door, he threw it open. “Ma’am, wait! Ma’am stop, please!”
Tawana froze, mortified at being spotted, but she could not help turning back toward the kind voice.
“Won’t you come inside and join us?”
“Join…you?” she faltered. “But I don’t even know you. Why would you ask me to come in? Besides, I’m not the type you people usually invite to parties.”
“Well, ma’am, seeing you standing out here has helped us remember why we are celebrating this night. You see, it was you, all of us, everyone really, that Jesus came for in the first place. He would not want you to be left out. You are the very reason why He came!”
The old man’s words sounded so peaceful and inviting that though she felt painfully ashamed of the signs of a godless lifestyle she knew her appearance bore, Tawana simply could not resist this love she was feeling. It did not matter at this moment that she did not understand. She allowed the weathered arm of Grandma Kelly to slip around her shoulders and draw her into the warmth inside.
Once Tawana was settled in near the fireplace with a cup of hot cocoa pressed into her cold hands, a thought began to come into focus in Gail Kelly’s mind. Remembering the sadness she had seen in Elena Bogren’s eyes earlier, the grandmother of many years felt God leading her to cross the street and knock on Jim and Elena’s door.
About the same time, Johnny remembered how he had caught sight of Mr. Keene when he went out to plug in the lights. He and Jerry had been great friends, but he had seen little of Jerry’s parents in the years since his death. Life had worn on and circumstances seemed to have separated them all. With the hearty approval of everyone present, he decided it was worth a try to reach out to them as well.
As the Spirit of the One they were celebrating went with the two emissaries, hurting hearts—even the ones hardened by years of pain—began a miraculous healing, and the Kelly’s gathering gently swelled.
That night the Savior of the world did what He came to do, as His children lived out the very reason why He came. Grandpa led them all in one more reading of Scripture after the fine meal they shared:
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings to the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound…to comfort all that mourn;” Isaiah 61:1-2 KJV.
Part 5: Your Story
Our individual stories are being written as we walk through our daily lives. How they play out will depend on our own understanding of our value to the One who robed Himself in flesh to live among us and to shed His own blood to purge us from our sins. Once we see with eyes of faith the love He wants to shed abroad in our hearts by the power the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of God that can live in us, and we respond to what we have seen with repentance and the washing away of our sins in the name of the Savior who died for us, Jesus Christ, we have paved the way for His love to pour into our souls in ways we could scarcely have imagined possible in this life.
At this season of seasons, seek to understand that you–with your hopes, your fears, your dreams, and your pain–are the reason why He came. So is your hurting neighbor, and those kids down the street whose mother does not know what the future holds for their little struggling family. As you recognize this, and respond as God directs, you are in line to have a more deeply blessed Christmas this year than any you have ever known. May God be with you, as He came to do.