The Ghost of Christmas
It’s happened again – what I call “one of my conversion experiences”!
The first happened in the nineteen fifties in a fourth class carriage on the train to Allahabad after working with the Quakers in Calcutta. There were no seats in the carriage and I sat on the floor next to an Indian peasant who offered me one of the two small scones that were his meal for the day. I declined the gift on the grounds that his need was greater than mine. What an idiot – to refuse the great gifts that the poor have to give!
It happened again in the nineteen seventies in Timor when I was engaged in a food development programme. The story is too long to relate here but it ended with an apparent deaf mute saying to me in the clearest words “Thank you my brother” before walking off into the crowd.
And now it has happened again, this time in the Commonwealth bank. Two days before Christmas I took to the bank an ice cream container filled with my small change for the year. The practice started when my beloved expressed her displeasure at my change always being emptied on the dressing table at the end of the day. The Commonwealth Bank at Innaloo has a coin counting machine. As I stood in the queue I overheard a guy about two places behind me in the queue saying to a bank officer that he had his wallet stolen and he wanted to get $25 out of his account to celebrate the season with his mates. He spoke loudly in a very simplistic way. During the conversation I heard him say “I come from an abusive family”. When I had made my deposit I walked past him, and without a word of a lie he very pleasantly said “Have a good Christmas, officer”. At the time, I took no great notice of the odd remark, and I have not the slightest idea what the guy looked like.
The next morning, as is my wont, I opened up the devotional daily readings of Frederich Buechner entitled “Listening to Your Life” – a book that I can thoroughly recommend. It was Christmas eve and the reading was about the ghost of Christmas. Buechner related the occasion when he went to the Papal mass in Rome on Christmas Eve in Rome and how the Pope seemed to be looking into the crowd for someone in particular. It impressed Buechner greatly. “I felt I knew who he was looking for… the person at that very moment crouched in some doorway against the night, or leading home some raging Roman drunk, or waiting for the mass to be over so he could come in with his pail and his mop to start cleaning up that holy mess.” Or perhaps waiting in a queue in a bank and saying to a self righteous Minister “Have a good Christmas, Officer.”
I wish the experience had been more palatable but that really is the nature of the game. The truth is not always pleasant to experience. I agree with Buechner that “it may well be a post Christian age that we are living in but … I think he has come to haunt us more and more until there is scarcely a place any longer where, recognised or unrecognised his ghost has not been seen.”
And, seeing it was Buechner who was involved in my latest “conversion” experience”, let me conclude with his words, some of the most significant and striking words about Christmas time.
“What do we do with the legends of the wise men and the star, the shepherds and the angels? Do we dismiss them as fairy tales? Only if we are fools do we do that . Whether there were ten million angels or just the woman herself and her husband, when that child was born the whole course of history was changed….. It is impossible to conceive of how differently world history would have developed if that child had not been born….. The birth of Jesus made possible not just a new way of understanding life but a new way of living it….. This is the central truth that Matthew and Luke are trying to convey in their accounts of the Nativity…. a truth which no language or legend seemed too extravagant to convey.… Western culture with all institutions and Western Man’s whole understanding of himself and his world was born that day.”
The Christmas stories are not a spectacular series of miraculous events that happened 2013 years ago. Christmas is about Mary saying “Be it unto me according to your word” – even if that word comes in the Commonwealth Bank in the year 2013.