Introduction: Christmas Windows
Never had they seen the downtown streets so deserted. The quiet of the dark, frigid night was interrupted occasionally by a car now and then, but the couple saw no one else walking on Grace Street. It was Christmas Eve.
And every store was closed; most window displays dark; even Christmas lights had been turned off. A cold wind whipped around corners and down streets, encouraging the man and woman to walk briskly the eight blocks from the church to the shelter.
They were in their mid-twenties, married two and a half years, lived in a suburban apartment complex, but were employed downtown. They had spent their first Christmas together traveling, first to her family’s Christmas celebration, then to his parents’ home for New Year’s. Last year, they decided to stay home and establish their own holiday traditions. It was awkward. Except for a nice dinner and some Christmas Eve TV, they pretty much sat in the living room and stared at the Christmas tree.
This year they were determined to make the most of every Christmas Eve moment.
So, they decided on an early church service downtown, a candlelight carol service like the ones they remembered from childhood. Then, having heard on the radio how a city shelter for the homeless was to be short of volunteers on Christmas Eve, they had talked it over and decided that, since they would have no other obligations that night, they’d offer to help in some way at the shelter. Their offer was accepted without hesitation and here they were on the way from the warmth of a church sanctuary to another kind of sanctuary--a place set apart not for worship services, but for service of another sort.
They did not know what to expect at the shelter. One staff person had told them on the phone that every Christmas Eve is different. One year the place was rocking with a holiday party--people glad to have found warmth, community, security, food and drink at Christmas...strangers quickly becoming friends, forgetting about the sad journeys that led them to homelessness, and even singing some carols together. Joy to the World! 0 Little Town of Bethlehem. O Come All Ye Faithful.
Another year, hardly anyone spoke. The place was quiet and empty and lonely, though occupied by a dozen souls. The veteran volunteer told the couple it had been the most depressing night of his life. One man had cried all night. Another had set two fires. Said the volunteer, “That was one Christmas Eve when there was no joy to the world, no peace on earth."
The man and woman who walked the cold streets that night, from one sanctuary to another, confessed to each other how nervous they were feeling. He said he wished they could just be on the way back to their car and drive home and stare at the tree again. She said, “Me, too. But my conscience keeps reminding me this is ‘the right thing to do'”.
“Yeah, I know. I’m sure everything will be fine.”
They kept walking. After a brief silence, during which they both prayed that it would be fine, he said, “I enjoyed that church service. The candlelight. Singing carols. Hearing the Christmas story. And the sermon was okay, too.”
She agreed. The minister had preached from Luke’s gospel and stressed the contrast between Luke’s simple birth narrative and what the preacher called “all the assumptions of tradition”. Tradition assumes a stable, but there is none in Luke. Tradition assumes an inn keeper, but there is none in Luke. Tradition adds frills to the original story, but Luke keeps the birth story simple. No bright star overhead. No angels or miraculous surprises at the manger. (Angels singing to shepherds in the fields, but not at the birthplace.) How did the minister put it? “No Christmas decorations of the story.”
The First Window
How did the minister put it? “No Christmas decorations.”
After crossing another empty city street, the young man asked his wife, “Did you notice where we sat in church? Right by a stained glass window that showed nearly every element of the Christmas story...sparkling colors...bold shapes...the stable, the child, Mary and Joseph, shepherds, angels, the star, magi...all pushed in there together as if it had happened in one miraculous flash! The sermon was about Jesus being born among the lowly and marginal of the earth, and the good news of his birth being sung not in palace halls, but in the fields to the humble and poor. And here’s this spectacular stained glass window that seems to rob the story of its simplicity.”
“Artistic license,” she responded. “Luke gives us the bare details first, right down to wrapping the baby in strips of cloth...swaddling cloths.. .to keep newborn babies’ bodies straight so they’d grow properly. This was a common birth. Not very out of the ordinary. Many children back then were born in mangers. If there was no guest room available, for privacy they’d go to where the animals were kept, maybe behind the house, or a lower level, or in a kind of cave. Luke keeps it simple for that scene, then tells about angels singing to shepherds, a cosmic announcement of an event that moves both heaven and earth. Peace on earth, glory to God in the highest heaven!”
“Artists--painters, writers, musicians--they look back, knowing the whole story, and add color and drama and music. The stained glass window isn’t Luke’s story; it’s ours. And we’ve added to it a wondrous mixture of truth and tradition.”
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.
Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
The Second Window
As Christmas Eve couple walked, they passed a large department store where a lighted display window had been left on. The light from the window cast an inviting warm glow through the frigid air onto the cold sidewalk. Except for streetlights, this was the only light shining in the darkness that Christmas Eve between the church and the shelter, and they could not help but stop.
The windows on each side of the lighted window were dark, but nonetheless, in them the couple could make out festive holiday displays of snowbears and elves who, when the electricity was on, had rollicked in plastic snow and danced on plexiglass ice. The darkness in those windows could only hint at bright colors, delightful characters, and festive gift wrap.
Yet the lighted window that had first attracted their attention centered on a more subdued theme. It was a manger scene. And such a contrast to the stained glass window of the church. There were no angels in this setting. No animals. No shepherds. Just the holy family in borrowed shelter. “This is Luke’s window,” he said as they surveyed the scene.
“I can’t see it real well,” he said, “because of my own reflection in the window glass. I’m in the way...I’m in the scene...I'm at the manger.”
“Oh, I see what you mean,” she replied quietly. “It’s as if we are part of the story.”
They were silent for awhile, as they considered this tableau of department store mannequins, a china head doll, rustic wooden feeding trough, and clean, fresh yellow straw, and the transparent, ghost-like presence of a young couple super-imposed into the scene. The wind had stilled and the warmth of the softly lighted window invited them to linger.
As they stood there, the scene set free their imaginations. They no longer saw mannequins, but now Joseph and Mary. The doll became an infant. The store seemed to disappear and they could almost smell the musty straw...and yet...in the midst of that scene stood two persons in twentieth-first century dress, huddled together for warmth, faces transfigured from curiosity to awe.
“We look like two visitors transported back from the future..time-warped angels very out-of-place,” he finally said.
She replied that she didn’t feel out of place. “I like being there. This is like an artist painting herself into her rendering of the scene. She really wasn’t there, but she has the power, the license, to place herself in the picture and experience inside what it might have been like. Imagine...“
Without waiting for her to ask, he volunteered, “I’ll tell you how I feel: I’m an intruder. This is an intimate moment for this family. A fragile new life, mother and father pondering the miracle of birth, relieved, exhausted, contented, but also, as is every parent, disquieted, if not haunted by the new responsibility of parenthood. The earlier commotion of birth, the family and friends and strangers who were around to assist, or to gawk, or support--all that has given way to this tender moment, and here we are, intruding.”
“I wonder if they realized how much they’d have to share his life with the whole world,” he continued. “Luke knew it when he wrote his gospel. He knew the answers to Mary’s and Joseph’s questions. He knew the death and resurrection stories. He knew the teachings. He wrote of this birth as one who believed this baby was one-of-a-kind, one whose life fulfilled ancient promises. One whose birth brought praise from heaven and earth.”
She interrupted, “Let me try something.” She moved a little to her left and said, “Oh, that’s eerie. My reflection on the window is right over Mary. My face is super-imposed in the glass on her face.”
“How does it feel to be the baby's mother?”
“I’m sure I’m quite exhausted. Physically and mentally. In this quiet moment, I’m trying to compose myself. I keep thinking about all that has brought us to this strange place. The certainty wrestles with uncertainty. I feel called, chosen; I feel a heavy burden, and yet I also feel strangely freed to give myself to whatever God has in store for me ...and for my child. Weary…and wary, but faith-filled.
The young man could then see his face over Joseph’s as he peered through the glass in the downtown department story window. He announced to his wife, “I’m Joseph. And I’m exhausted too. Glad everyone has left us alone. I’m thinking about the future. I want to get back home and get settled in familiar surroundings. I’m also thinking about all it means to be a father. I’ll be a provider and teacher. This boy will carry my name... Jesus, son of Joseph...and he’ll learn my trade. I’m thinking about how I can keep him from making the same mistakes I made in my youth. And I’m wondering about who he will become apart from his family tree... I’m awestruck by this call to be a father. And apprehensive.
“Come on, ‘Joe’. We’ve got to go. We’re due at the shelter.”
The Third Window
“Come on, ‘Joe’. We’ve got to go. We’re due at the shelter.”
“It’s hard to pull away from this scene,” he admitted. “I wonder if the person who designed this window knew it would help people put themselves into the Christmas story. I feel a part of it.. .like it’s a part of me. I don’t feel like an intruder anymore. I feel like part of the family and it’s comfortable.. .peaceful. They ought to leave this window up all year.”
“Come on, ‘Joe'. Time to leave the manger and go to work,” she said. “Like the pastor said at the end of the sermon, ‘We’d like to keep Christmas, but there’s work to do to honor the teachings of the grown-up Jesus.’ Let’s go.”
Another couple of blocks and they saw the lights of the old downtown house, now a shelter. The wind had picked up again. The cold numbed their faces and they walked quickly up the steps of the porch where they heard singing. The homeless were singing of a homeless family of long ago. Away in a manger, no crib for his bed...
The young man and woman looked in the windows of the shelter and saw that there was indeed joy to the world that night. There were candles aglow, faces bright with comfort and joy, children safe for awhile, their parents singing of hope, and this night believing in the promises of Christmas. The young couple entered the shelter to the welcoming greeting of “Merry Christmas!”
As they looked around at the least of these, their neighbors, their eyes were opened, and they recognized Him.