The Christmas of 1977 was one of those years that Christmas Day happened to fall on a Sunday.
I was in my first year at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. In order to earn additional money for tuition I accepted the position as church organist in September at a large church in Lexington, KY, and when I was hired, it was agreed that I would play throughout the Christmas season. That meant I would not be home for Christmas in Baltimore that year.
I had begun dating a young man from Texas named Michael Johnson, but when the fall semester final exams were over he went home and I stayed in Kentucky to fulfill my obligations to the church. When the dorms closed I ended up staying at an apartment that a fellow seminarian had rented. He went home for Christmas but was thrilled to let me use his apartment so that I could take care of his Siamese cat named Butch. Butch was a strange cat. He insisted on sleeping with his head on the pillow with me every night, and he even snored in my ear, which made the whole lonely Christmas scene yet a little more bizarre.
I was determined to be brave about being alone for Christmas in a strange town, with a strange cat, being employed by church people that I barely knew. As each student finished exams and left for home, my bravery began to slip away into full-blown home-sickness. After all, aren’t we all supposed to be home for Christmas? Wasn’t there some song about it that Bing Crosby sang during World War II?
What is home anyway? Surely not a mere house in a particular location, but a place of loving support of family and friends. Yet, it also has something to do with faith in Jesus, who is our abiding home.
On Christmas Eve that year, after I played for the third candlelight service at Tate’s Creek Christian Church, a silver-haired lady in the choir approached me. She invited me to her home for Christmas dinner, to join her and her sisters and their families in an old Kentucky mansion. I gladly accepted, although I wondered greatly how it would feel to be this stranger in the midst of a family holiday gathering.
It turned out to be one of the best Christmases of my life, with a sumptuous banquet of turkey and ham, alongside Southern specialties of oyster stew, cheese grits casserole and pecan pie. The best part was the warmth of Christian love they extended toward me.
We shared in casual conversation and opened gifts. (Yes, Santa had left gifts for me too, under their tree.) But we also witnessed to one another about our faith and the love of Jesus Christ, who was, and is, the real meaning of Christmas.
Jesus, our Lord Jesus, was not home for Christmas either. He had left his home in Glory to come and be with us sinful people, who would (for the most part) neither receive him nor believe in him (John 1:11). He came anyway, because he knew it was the only way we could ultimately be “home for Christmas” when this earthly world passes away and God establishes a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1).
Mary and Joseph were also not home for that first Christmas. They traveled 80 miles from the familiar safely of Nazareth to the ancestral home of King David so they could provide census information required by the ruling king. They too sacrificed in obedience to the secular law, but also in obedience to God’s call.
Their heavenly father bid them to travel to Bethlehem for the birth of his star-child, to a place that was ordained for this purpose centuries before (Micah 5:2). Being away from home gave them an opportunity to minister to shepherds and townspeople who rejoiced in God’s salvation.
Will you be home for Christmas this year? For a moment, ponder the meaning of Christmas as it relates not to your earthly home but to our abiding and eternal home. Where is your heart’s home?
In his tiny book My Heart-Christ’s Home, Robert Boyd Munger reminds us that a deep peace settles into our hearts and our lives when we each totally turn over to the Lord the “deed” to our home, our heart. Each day we need to allow God to go through the many rooms of our heart-homes to clean up and fix up the places that need to be purified and restored.
We need God to get rid of the sins that hold us back from living fully in relationship with our Creator and with other people. In those vital relationships with God and our neighbors we can find our rootedness, our strength and our true home.
Do you know of someone who is not going to be able to be home for Christmas this year? If you search you can find someone. Maybe there is a struggling international student or worker, or someone who is experiencing divorce, separation or abandonment; or someone who, for whatever reason, is far from home?
Perhaps there is a senior adult who is home for Christmas, but their friends and loved ones are not. Those with whom they once spent Christmas may have moved or passed away, and now there is loneliness and stillness in a home that used to sing for joy. Maybe there is a nursing home or a hospice that needs the presence of your heart, your “home” for Christmas this year. I highly recommend it. It could turn out surprisingly to be one of the best Christmases of your life.
The last time Christmas Day fell on a Sunday, in 2011, I spent Christmas Eve at historic Barratt's Chapel in Fredericka, Del., and then I enjoyed the hospitality of Barb Duffin, the museum's curator, at her lovely home. We then celebrated the birth of Christ at Felton UMC.
The next morning I spent Christmas Day at Delaware Hospice, perhaps an unlikely place to find joy, but it was there. Chaplain Larry Ganster gently ministered to families, residents and staff; and we had an uplifting Christmas service celebrating light and life.
A deepening faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is where we can find home when we are not at home. It is where we can find peace that surpasses all understanding and calms our every distress. And in the midst of all kinds of sadness, we can find the simple joy and lasting hope of our dreams in heaven, as long as our hearts are home with Christ for Christmas.
Bishop Peggy Johnson
Bishop Peggy Johnson