It’s my first Christmas away from home. Our college youth choir is on tour and we’re making our way from southern California, across the barren landscape of the Texas panhandle, to Oklahoma. It’s bitter cold, our van is smothered with ice, I can’t see out the window, and we’ve been on the road for more than twenty-four hours.
We make it to First Church in time to set up for their Christmas Eve service. Our program is John Fisher’s musical, The New Covenant. In between songs I narrate the message from Jeremiah of a new and better way:
“The time is coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant...
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their forefathers...
I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”
Our program is over. The congregation surrounds us with love and good food. They’re touched and moved: The baby Jesus, full of grace and truth, God-with-us, in our hearts, in our minds. No more rules. We can start anew.
It’s getting deathly late, so we bed down in the church’s Fellowship Hall. The room is piled with bodies, strewn all over the floor under sleeping bags. I’m too exhausted to care.
Christmas morning. All is quiet, but all is bleak. Through the windows, which reach from ceiling to floor at the other end of the room, there is nothing but grey, icy dirt. Sparse blades of grass whimper in the wind. Nothing looks or feels familiar—nothing like the Christmas I know.
We pack up, wind our way back through Texas, to another church. It’s another evening concert. It’s Christmas night. Our program proceeds as before. From the Gospel of John I announce, “The law was given through Moses; but grace and truth through Jesus.” I go on to quote from the apostle Paul:
Therefore, we are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face... No, Christ has taken it away. For where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into this likeness...For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts.
In the Christ child is life, and that life is the light of the world. In us too is life and light. It shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not and cannot overcome it. We are witnesses. It shines.
It’s approaching midnight. This time families invite us home and give us a bed. Before I turn in, my host thanks me. His wife left him several years back. “Thank you for reminding me of how the light can still shine.”
Morning comes early, much too early. We have to pack up and head off to Albuquerque. I’m not too sure I have the energy to keep doing this, but I’m eager to sing and tell about the new and better way.
This time the congregation is packed with elderly folk. “Merry Christmas! God is with us – Immanuel is born.” Our program commences. Near the end, I quote from Paul again:
We have seen his glory and do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all... Glory to God in the highest!
A bent-over gentleman, with cardigan and cane, comes up to me afterwards. He is teary-eyed. He embraces me, and then gingerly walks away. His wife had just died of cancer.
Several days and several more churches later I’m back in school. A letter is in my mailbox from Mom. “So how was your Christmas?” I tell her all about the tour, where we went and what we tried to bring to those we met.
Another letter from Mom. She worries I didn’t have a good Christmas: No tree, no gifts, no Santa, no caroling or parties. I don’t know what to say. Then I recall the shepherds in the Christmas story, and how they hurried off to spread the news about the babe lying in the manger. “All who heard them were amazed at what they said to them.”
“Mom,” I write back. “I did have a good Christmas... I was doing shepherd’s work.”
Christ is born! There is a new and better way. The light shines in the darkness. Our sins are forgiven, remembered no more. Spread the news. It’s the season for shepherd’s work. Hallelujah!