My first Christmas out of seminary was in 1989 at Saint Luke’s Parish, Darien, Connecticut, and another priest on staff, Doug Ray, told me a story.
Doug was standing in the narthex on a cold Christmas Eve and two good-looking young couples came to the door. Since the church was full and every folding chair was occupied, the head usher said, “So sorry, the church is full, but there’s a beautiful overflow service in the Chapel.” And the two power couples sort of whispered among themselves, ‘Should we stay? Go to this Chapel thing? Not what we had in mind . . . .’ Finally, Doug said, one of the men said, “Oh hell, let’s just go back to Chi Chi’s.”
The message of the first Christmas night was delivered by angels to desperate people. To shepherds who weren’t just poor, but who were regarded in first-century Palestine as something like the migrant workers of our day. They had no reason for hope and joy. The message was delivered to a frightened thirteen-year-old mother and a soul-stricken man who knew only that he was not the father of this child, and yet that his ignominy was part of some divine plan the angels out there were calling “glad tidings of great joy.” They were people, in other words, who couldn’t just go back to Chi Chi’s. Either this “good news” was valid in the worst human suffering, or it wasn’t real.
As I write this, one of my cousins is suddenly dying and we are getting daily updates from his family, taking turns keeping all-night vigil by his bed. For the Christmas angels, these folks are blessed because they are desperate. All the rest of us must find some way to get desperate. Which isn’t that hard to do. We all have moments when it all seems too much, when we seem at the end of our own strength and smarts—but then we buck up and get it behind us. If we can find our way back to that place, and know how much we need grace and mercy, we might say yes to the usher and head for the Chapel.