Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Christmas Eve Miracle

Hear the story read by the author.

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. Christmas was Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell’s busy season. Sure, Easter was the more important holiday from a religious standpoint, but Christmas brought with it all the cultural demands of decorations and gifts and social events as well. So by Christmas Eve, Henry was even more worn down than the average American. And the average American didn’t have to perform two candlelight services like the good pastor did.

Every year Henry promised himself he would get a jump on the season by finishing chores like gift buying in November. And every year Henry failed. This year he had purchased his gift for his wife Jennifer the afternoon of December 24th. He would have preferred that Jennifer just tell him specifically what she wanted for Christmas, but she liked to be surprised. Because she knew his holiday season was stressful, she did always try to make it easier on him by insisting anything he got her would be fine

However after eighteen years of watching Jennifer attempting to fake delight at some sweater or kitchen appliance she clearly didn’t want, Henry had concluded “anything he got her” was not fine. And he’d spent an enormous amount of time this year wandering the four malls in Normal seeking out something that would elicit genuine joy from his wife.

He finally settled on a pair of diamond earrings. Which, he thought, should not have been such a hard gift to come up with. Diamonds, after all, were a girl’s best friend. True, they had cost about six times what he’d planned to spend, but his normal thriftiness had been beaten into submission during the many hours trekking through the malls. With that annoying trait in a coma, picking a gift had been much easier.

Henry had accepted the bubbly young saleswoman’s offer of free gift wrapping since he was not very adept with tape and scissors. She had done a beautiful job, but had taken longer than he’d anticipated because there was a line of men in front of him waiting for their gifts to be wrapped. It seemed Henry wasn’t the only husband picking up a last minute present for his wife at the mall jewelry store.

Henry finally reached the church less than half an hour before the 7:30 pm service. Despite his rush, he paused at the church’s nativity scene on the way in. The display’s life sized figures were dusted with snow from a storm the previous evening. The baby Jesus was nearly buried in his manger. That would never do for Christmas Eve, so Henry carefully brushed off each of the figures and dumped the snow out of the manger. He re-wrapped the swaddling clothes around the plastic doll standing in for baby Jesus and set it back in place.

“There you are!” It was his wife’s voice. Henry quickly grabbed the beautifully wrapped present from where he’d set it by the manger and slid it into his coat pocket. When he turned around, Jennifer gave him a kiss. “I brought your dinner,” she said.

Henry looked at his watch. “I’m afraid I’ll have to eat it between services.” He rushed to his office, stuck the earrings in his desk drawer, and changed into his vestments.

The 7:30 service went off reasonably well. The sanctuary looked festive in its Christmas décor, a “tree” made of poinsettia plants crowning the chancel. The choir performed beautifully. And Henry summoned the energy to deliver a moving sermon reminding the congregation of the original impetus for the holiday.

Afterward, Jennifer sat with Henry in his office while he ate the dinner she’d brought. He was so grateful for the lukewarm ham and mashed potatoes that he began to wonder if he should have gotten her a diamond necklace as well as the earrings. He wasn’t even bothered when she told him she wouldn’t be staying for the later service as she still had some gift-wrapping to do back at the house.

A full tummy did not help Henry fight his exhaustion. At the 11 pm service, he fell asleep twice during hymns. Organist Walter Tibble had to kick him to wake him up for the sermon, which was a little less energetic than his earlier performance. And Henry almost lit his stole on fire during the candlelight procession out of the church at midnight. He decided he’d better make himself a cup of coffee before attempting to drive home.

Rejuvenated by the caffeine, Henry stuck the earrings in his coat pocket and turned out the lights. But when he went to lock his office door, he discovered his keys were not in his pocket. He searched his desk and the floor of his office, but no luck.

He went to the sanctuary to see if perhaps the keys had fallen out of his pocket there. And while he was crawling around on the floor of the chancel, he bumped the stand holding the poinsettia plants. Half a dozen pots fell, spilling black soil across the carpet. Henry felt like crying. He knew he couldn’t leave things in that state, so he took off his coat, got the vacuum and cleaned up the mess.

But he still didn’t have his keys. He checked the coffee room, even digging through the old grounds in the trash. Nothing. He sat in the middle of the floor and tried to focus his sleep-deprived brain.

“Maybe I left them in the car!” he exclaimed.

He ran outside. The brisk air quickly reminded him he had left his coat in the sanctuary. He jogged over to his car and peered through the window. The ignition was empty. Henry cursed and dashed back toward the church, rubbing his arms to keep warm. But he made the poor decision to take a shortcut across the lawn and slipped on a patch of wet snow, his feet shooting out from under him. He landed on his back, his head slamming painfully into the frozen ground.

Despite the overcast sky, he saw a roiling constellation of stars. They soon dissipated, except for one bright star in the East. Henry rolled on to his hands and knees dizzily. The star seemed to be beckoning him. He crawled through the snow toward it. It led him in the direction of a clutch of shadowy figures. As he crawled closer, he realized it was the nativity display.

Henry kneeled in front of the Christmas scene. A warm feeling of spirituality washed over him. Henry chose to believe it was the Holy Spirit, though a piece of him worried it might be the onset of hypothermia. He smiled as he looked at the baby Jesus and thought about the true meaning of the holiday.

And that’s when he saw his keys lying in the manger. He must have dropped them when he was cleaning the snow out. He looked up at the star that had guided him and realized it was actually a streetlight. This discovery didn’t dampen his Christmas spirit in the least. God worked in mysterious ways. He said a little prayer of gratitude.

Keys in hand, Henry retrieved his coat from the sanctuary and headed home. There he deposited Jennifer’s gift under the tree. It was after two when he finally crawled into bed.

Their daughter Katie roused them a mere five hours later. Though she was fifteen, she was still very much a small child when it came to opening presents on Christmas morning. Henry managed to stumble downstairs to the couch, where he promptly fell back asleep amidst the gift opening frenzy. So he missed the look of true delight on Jennifer’s face when she unwrapped the earrings. But Katie got a picture of it on her cell phone.

After breakfast, Henry went back to bad and slept until noon. It was a very merry Christmas in the O’Donnell household.

Merry Christmas!

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