I remember the longings I’ve had to sit in quiet solitude by the tree in the evenings or early mornings after Christmas and reflect on the past while taking inventory of the present. It seemed I rarely was able to find the time, and rolled on into the New Year carrying an empty space within me. Now I know that the longing itself was a Christmas gift, a treasure given by the One who always comes to those who wait expectantly.
Before, I never felt I had the time. Things begged to be done. There were obligations to be met. I felt guilty even thinking of myself at times like Christmas. The world seemed to need so much. I had to give, to work. And I didn’t bother to open my own present, though it contained more than enough to share. Little did I know – I needed to actually open mine before I could give to others.
But the longing was always there. The star was shining out, the angels singing somewhere. I’ve always known that very deeply. Left behind with his duties, this wayward wise man was still a seeker. I wanted to give my pearl to the King. But I couldn’t seem to find it.
I suspect I am not the only one who has felt this way. One can argue over the reasons — the work ethic we inherited, which had filtered through wars and the Great Depression, Old Testament teachings about straining for righteousness and suspicion of idleness – there are many others. But I feel the core aversion to taking time to stop, rest and open one’s own gifts comes from a deep-seated mistrust or disbelief of unconditional love and grace. Could anything good really come to those who don’t deserve it, who didn’t break their backs and work their fingers to the bone trying to gain it without messing up? Could the fundamental message of Christmas really be true, that God had indeed loved us enough to do the unthinkable thing of donning our very flesh to heal it with the God-self balm?
I’m grateful for the longing, still there even at times when I crowded it out with my own trash. When I wasted precious time on many nothings while the only Something worth anything lay unopened in its special spot under the tree. It had my name on it the whole time, and I didn’t notice (Surely there’s not one left for me.)
But now, things are different. Life has shown me, mostly through my own mistakes and tangents and the grace that followed, that there is, indeed, time for rest. The tree is still here, and there are gifts to be opened. There is always time. And yes, I do deserve it. Because God made me and loves me. And in some mysterious way, God needs me to find my gifts and give them back to Him through sharing them with the world. But not frenetically, like a Christmas week shopper. Serenely, like one thankful for all he has received.
Henry van Dyke’s classic story of The Other Wise Man tells of the fourth king who missed the three as they set out after the star. A series of circumstances caused him to pawn the treasures he had for the King so that he could help others along the way, as he wandered for years with the burning longing to find Him. Not being present to the meaning contained in his wanderings and compassion shown to others, his aged heart was weary when it finally entered the gates of Jerusalem and heard of the trial and crucifixion of the One he had spent most of his life seeking. Mortally wounded in a tragic accident while clambering to get a glimpse of his heart’s desire, and realizing his life was ebbing away, the Other Wise Man heard a voice speaking the words which would give assurance in his final earthly hour: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. “ The gift had been found and given back, after all.
So now it’s time to get my coffee, light a candle, and follow that prickly scent to a time of solace by the tree. I will be present to the mystery and miracle of being alive right now, of living in a moment that has never been before, yet somehow will always be here with me. I will be grateful for the journey I took to get here, and accept the times I made a wrong turn, yet was guided by the longing. I will look back for that Unseen Hand that warmed the way, also looking ahead to know it will always lead me to a waiting rest beside the tree. And I won’t be afraid to reach down and peel back the bow and paper of my gift.
Merry Christmas forever to us all.
(watercolor by my father, Lester, an artist who had Alzheimer’s disease)