Yearning, I search for the evidence of Christmas in your face.

It’s Christmas! A pastor is visited by a parishioner. As this person enters, the pastor focuses his thoughts upon his visitor.

Ah child, your mouth is turned down. There are weights at the corners of your lips. What are these weights? And something has squeezed your forehead together so that your brow is as a plowed field, and winter has frozen it so. Come in. Come in a minute and tell me what’s making you frown.

Oh, child, look at you! Your shoulders sag. Your hands droop. Why is this? Your knees are bent. You walk a crooked, stumbling gait; and you blow great sighs from the basement of your soul. Why? Now here is a strange thing: you thought that your sorrow was hidden, but it wasn’t. And when I speak of it with my searching eye, you learn that it’s visible to me. One tiny question, then—the little, intentional why?—like a bullet drops you. You sit. You suck in breath. You shake, you cry, you raise your voice in anger. Like some kind of animal’s roar comes the sorrow once restrained inside of you; and I should be shocked at the brutality of your cry, for you were always so correct. I am not shocked. But I think you are. You make a list with your angry speaking. All of the sorrows tumble out, the weights, the cause for frowning, the reasons for your sagging, drooping, damned, dispirited existence—and there are hundreds of them. The reasons are endless. The list of your griefs stops only when you run short of breath, blinking, overwhelmed to discover that you had such reason to be sad.

And I listen.

While you stare at me in some astonishment, I offer you a cup of coffee. I make it slowly so that you have the time to meet yourself, but not under another’s gaze. I give you the cup, which you lay against your cheek—for the heat, perhaps: it is winter. But you do not drink. You lower your eyes and begin to talk again, with greater hesitation, quietly. I think you are embarrassed by what has just happened. But I think you are fascinated, too. So you talk, but haltingly.

And I listen.

Dear God, how carefully I listen to you, for when will I get this chance again? I don’t know. So I prove in a thousand ways how much my ear, my mind, my heart belong to you alone just now. I nod. I say, “Oh.” I cover my mouth, pull at my chin, lean forward in my chair, watch closely the dark, flitting center of your eye.

I do listen—and I hear, finally, that all of your sorrows are no more than one sorrow. Oh, it is a terrible thing, and good reason to be hurting as you do; but it is only one. You have divided the one into many simply because it shows itself in a thousand forms. I understand that. But you have divided it, also, because you don’t want to believe that the source of all your grief is there, is there in that one sorrow, is in you. Strange. We would rather suffer a hundred troubles caused by other people than to admit one for which we alone are responsible. No one thinks that he could do such damage to himself. But he can. And you, sitting there so full of the acid of blame, burning—burning on the inside—you did.

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And I love you, child. I love you. Therefore, when you have finally fallen silent, staring at your empty palms, then I take my breath, fearfully, and I begin to speak. No, I do not take your side against the bulls and the dogs that beset you. In fact, I do somewhat set my eyes against you. That’s why I speak fearfully. Yet that’s why I speak at all. And that’s why I jam my voice with gentleness, though the words themselves attack you. I have to tell you the truth, child. Nothing will heal but that. Yet that hurts like the lash when someone hears it truly. And you are vulnerable to such a hearing right now, right now! So it will hurt; I know, I know, I know. But when will I get the chance again? That I don’t know.

I breathe, and I say, “O my child, why did you ask the Lord to leave your life?”

You give me a fast glance, as though I’d just changed the subject a little too violently; but I haven’t. Your nostril flares, as though you sniffed a dangerous tack; there you are right.

“When you sent the Lord Christ away, you sent your strength as well,” I say. You are looking at my chin now, not my eyes. “When you dismissed Jesus, you denied the Cause for Joy; therefore you lost the cause of honest smiling (though the smile still clung to your face a while, so you didn’t connect his leaving with your losing it). That’s where the droop comes from, child, in your shoulders, your lips, and in the very heart of you. Child, why did you choose to become your own law, Lord and Master? You are no good at it. Look at you. Look how you have failed at it.”

You grow uncomfortable with my talking. You squirm, and I suspect that you are seeking reasons to dislike me, to judge me, or, at the least, to scorn me. You can devalue my words that way. Or else you are pitying my poor preacherly ignorance, my unworldly idealism, making me (in your own mind) too kind to know the truth.

But I love you, and I persist.

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“Not me,” I say, “but the Lord, child. The Lord. It is the Lord himself unsettling you right now. Not me, whom you can’t look in the eye. Not me, who seems suddenly so strange to you despite our years of friendship. It is the Lord: him you wish to avoid. Perhaps you’re scared of his return. You think he’ll come to judge you. Worse: you think that you will die at his coming. And in this last,” I whisper, leaning forward, “you are right; masters die at the Master’s coming—”

Now you are absolutely silent. Your gaze has jelled, like cataracts; and though you look toward me, it’s my ear or my cowlick you focus on. You are making no commitments, not even with your eyes, not even the least of commitments, which is that you might be listening. Commitments, I think, terrify you; they wear black hoods and hide their faces and could, in the end, kill you.

Oh, how I want to cry for you—so tough, you! So close to swagger and belligerence; so like the children bravely mimicking their elders—but you’re the elder, mimicking a child. You, your only, foremost enemy! You, you, for your sake won’t you look at me?

This is the hardest time for me. I truly don’t know whether I’m winning or losing the moment. Your face shows nothing—no sorrow any more, for that was vulnerability (so dear to me, to you so dangerous), no hope, nor joy, nor pain, for friendship. Nothing. I want to cry for both of us: I do not know if I am touching you with healing, nor how it burns; but it is healing that I have for you. And I love you, I love you, I love you—

Therefore, in a voice as clean as its message, void of the feelings inside of me, I persist. And I pray my words come down like snow, cooling, covering, scarlet to white and crimson to wool:

“O my child,” I say, “for God’s sake do not be afraid. His coming will ravage you, yes. But it will not hurt you in the way you think. His coming into you will be the same as when first he came into the world: Christmas! A baby conceived and growing, what Christmas whispers. That’s how he enters you.

“Hush, hush, hear me! Be bold and open; listen to me.

“It begins in delight, as when a man and a woman make love together, only, it is God and the people together. You—you do nothing but cease to fight. You drop your arms, both weapons, both muscle and bond; all unprotected you lie before the mighty God, helpless before the Holy One. And then the life introduced by that sweet joining is small and hidden in the depths of your being; but it is there, there, independent, powerful, alive within you, growing. Your mind goes inward to the baby’s turning. ‘Ah!’ you sigh at odd moments, grabbing your heart, ‘something kicked!’ You close your eyes to comprehend this miracle: God in you!—and all the world that sees you wonders at your silent wondering.

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“This is the first stage of his coming to you: Christmas.

“But then the parturition, the birth, the birth, my child! Not forever can the Christ stay hidden in you, but he will be born into your open life—with labor and pain on your part, to be sure; but with the shock of joy as well: He is! He lives! This is what he looks like, whom I love, who was in me, but who was ever and ever before me!

“He will live visibly in your deeds and in your doings. The people will look at you and see a new thing and demand its name, and you will say, ‘Jesus,’ and they will go away wondering still; but you will smile as any mother would.

“This is the second stage of his advent here: Christmas.

“Finally, he will grow as children grow. He will mature until he is revealed as stronger, stronger than you and wiser. Then, O my child, the pain is past, when him you thought the infant stands before you as the Lord, and you admit yourself the infant once again. Then pain is past, when you confess how asinine you were to master your own life with such another Master standing by. Then he it is who lifts your hands and strengthens your weak knees and straightens out your walking, who smooths your brow and gives you life again and raises up your trembling lips into a smile. This is how the Christ comes unto you—” I say, yearning for you to know it, yearning for the birth of Jesus also in you, also in you.

I am leaning forward. I do not want to stop talking, for when will I get this chance again? But the words are gone out of my mouth now. So I hold still two minutes longer, fixing you with my eyes, leaning forward, embarrassing you—

That’s wrong. I should not embarrass you. I have become far too intense. So I drop my eyes like a lover compromised. I put my hand upon my mouth. I hear snow stroking the windows. You are saying nothing; it is up to me to set you free one way or the other, one way or the other. That is to say, I have to signify that our conversation’s done. You won’t. You wait.

Dear Lord, what have I done to you? With three words, then, the chance is gone, and so are you.

I whisper, “Christmas, my child.” You rise, saying, “And Merry Christmas to you, too, Pastor.” You thank me. You are very much collected, now—not sad any more, not happy either: blank. I can’t read past your blankness. You shake my hand and then you leave me, back to your world. Ah, I pray, as you go. With all my heart I pray that you are not giving me a fine show of independence, that you are not choosing to “deal with the problems alone,” the master of your soul. Urgently, I pray that you are going out to meet your Christmas, that acute conception, that laborious birth, life—

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But I don’t know, after all. I cannot tell. All I have right now are your boot-tracks in the city snow, and even those are fading. I have to wait long, long, to see the evidence of Christmas in your face. But I will wait. I will wait. Dear, I will wait a lifetime. Because I love you.

Walter Wangerin, Jr., is pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Evansville, Indiana. His writings include the award-winning Book of the Dun Cow (Harper & Row, 1978).

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