JUST A FEW more miles, a bit over the hill, just around the corner… and Christmas will be here. These words echo around my mind. I remember my father saying them while driving his 1940 Mopar sedan all too slowly along a country road just before Christmas. The time was just after World War II had ended. I sat fidgeting in the back seat, bouncing around in the old car as we wound along a road that ran next to the rapids of a cold mountain creek. I anxiously waited to see my favorite little-bitty country house. We all felt a need to see things that did not change. Times were still difficult though war was over, for my father said another war was about to start. Troubled yet was the world it seems… and still very bumpy was the road.
The place to which we motored was a small, two-bedroom home. The farm had located in a valley of the mountains in northeastern Pennsylvania. My great-grandparents, Burton and Belle, had lived there for as long as I could remember at the time. A pine tree stood tall in front of the little house. Its branches sheltered the place and marked the driveway. From a quarter mile away I could see it. So I could tell when we’d almost arrived.
Indeed the trip taxed my sparse, youthful patience. I had always looked forward to the journey that our family habitually made before Christmas. We were returning to the home place. Even now, as the scene is nested in the memory of my elder years, I clearly see that trek as we rambled. The journey reminds me of the long tax enrollment road demanded of Joseph and Mary as they went toward Bethlehem…
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7)
Long ago when the stable was sought by the blessed couple, they went to a small place, an ancient place, a place set apart and thus made holy… a place that the prophets had said waited for burdened people. Once they'd arrived, according to blessed Luke, Mary gave birth. Our Lord’s young mother then laid him in a manger… a simple feeding-trough for the animals. The manger’s symbolism reaches forward in time to altars in our present day. We gather before our God, to receive the body and blood of Christ as divine gift that was, and yet still is given for us.
Though many years have past, I clearly recall going to see my great-grandparents. They were early 90s in age. They had great difficulty moving around. Taxing times and pains of passing years had taken toll, so they could no longer keep pace. The world had moved all too quickly past their youth. When they met and delivered their first child, slow but not always gentle beasts of burden would carry them to church. Great G’ma Belle would teach Sunday School there.
“Too fast are the cars now.” she often said. Too fast was the world it seemed then... and now. Even faster we tread today with our cell phones, international flights, and cyber-terrorism across the globe... so fast that I must work hard to remember that a patriarch and matriarch once sat quietly in state long ago, waiting in the warm alongside a kitchen coal stove. They waited for me, and for the other children of the family who would brighten their day.
Young Mary had heard the voice of an angel. She came to Bethlehem and laid her pregnant body to rest. She groaned and gave birth to the One who would rescue many who are heavily taxed. As the road of sin pushed down, blessed Emmanuel would lift them up. He would save many who would come to believe.
You see, Jesus Christ was born to pay the tax. He had come to set sinners free. No Caesar, no Devil, no demons, rutted roads, dusty trails, or violent waters… could stop the love of God. Jesus, the Son of Almighty God... was born of a virgin and laid in a manger. God had come to save us. He would brighten the day.
Since that wonderful night so long ago, by the power of Holy Spirit our Lord has taught us to hate sin and love the sinner. By his example, he has taught us to how to pay the tax for others and set the burdened free. Jesus taught us that our eternal Father knows what giving is all about. You see, I know this to be true… for since that blessed, holy night… because of that giving love… church steeples yet rise where tall pines grow.
At this Christmas then, I remember that my earthly father worked diligently as I sat in Great G’ma’s kitchen. I would sit content as a coddled child and eat wonderful, warmed apple pie. While I ate, my father would bring coal up from the basement in a bucket. Next, he would perform his labor of love.
Dad would shake down the ashes in the stove. He would then take the spent, hot ashes from the firebox and spread them down the snowy driveway, melting ice and giving traction so the other visitors could more easily arrive. Afterward, washing coal dust off himself using cold, hand-pumped water just like a newborn being baptized in a cold marble font… he would turn and say “Brrrr!” He would grin. Then my father would smile and his eyes would twinkle a bit, and say gently to everyone… as I now say to you… “Merry Christmas”.