Sunday, December 18, 2011

Just a touch of Chrismas

The young man manning the red kettle outside the Jewel on Elgin’s West Side was ringing a bell in each hand. For every person entering or exiting the store, he flashed a big smile and offered a very warm “merry Christmas.”

I do not know his name, in fact had never seen him before, but his smile seemed warm and genuine as I walked out. I had been running a couple of errands and had stopped to pick up a bottle of water. It cost me my last dollar and some change.

As I stepped out the door and onto the sidewalk, I noticed he had his arms crossed, each hand ringing a bell below each armpit, his elbows up in the air so folks could see the bells. It was a somewhat silly pose.

By outward appearances, we had little in common. He is tall and thin, I am short and somewhat thin. His skin was quite a bit darker than mine, as was his hair — no crow’s feet about the eyes or sprinkles of white in his hair to hint at “maturity.” His smile was broad, and the way he held those bells while ringing them under his arms prompted me to smile. I like to smile.

But I had nothing for the kettle this day — I usually try to drop something in, even small change. Even though this has been a hard year, I’ve managed to give a little here, a little there, to the ubiquitous bell ringers manning The Salvation Army’s red kettles.

I walk quickly, and in the second or so it took me to cross the span between the door and the street, I made up my mind.

“I have nothing to give you today,” I said as I approached. Smiling, I extended my right hand. “But by golly, you look like you’re having a good time, and I just want to wish you God’s very best for Christmas.”

With barely a pause, he shifted the bell in his right hand to his left and reached forward to clasp mine. It initially occurred to me that he couldn’t possibly smile any wider, but I was wrong.

“Hey, thank you! Thank you very much,” he said. “And you have a very merry Christmas, too!”

The moment passed. I continued toward my car, and he began ringing those hand bells again, a little harder, I think. All the while, he called out holiday greetings to each person who passed by him.

On this day, the sun shone as brightly as ever, which was reason enough to smile. But I was still smiling as I started the car, the warmth of a kindred spirit’s hand still fresh in my own. As I pulled out of the parking space and then turned onto Larkin Avenue, through my slightly open window I could still hear the bells and his calls of greeting to people entering or exiting the store.

I know by his smile he appreciated my brief words and handshake, but I wondered if that young man knew what a gift he was sharing with me, and many others who were walking past him.

On this day, two strangers, in passing, exchanged gifts that bear far greater value than the shiniest toys or finest clothing one might find beneath a decorated tree on Christmas morning.

The commercialism often brings out the cynics during this season whose focus increasingly appears to be, "What will I get?" Yet some of us try to remember what it’s all about — and it has little to do with brightly wrapped packages stacked high beneath a tree.

Most people are familiar with the story of a babe in a manger. But it’s so much more than that.

It’s about the almighty, all-knowing and completely self-sufficient God of the universe looking down upon his creation and having pity, despite the unholy mess we make of ourselves. It is about him expressing his love and compassion in a truly remarkable way, essentially giving up his “God-ness” to be a man — in fact, starting as an embryo and growing into a baby, the entire time entirely dependent upon another for his care. He went from wholly independent to completely dependent, from all-powerful to utterly weak, and he did it out of love for us.

Certainly some would argue that Easter is the more important of Christianity’s holy days. Easter does mark the culmination of Jesus' ministry, his sacrifice for our sins. But Easter had to have a start, and it seems to me that perhaps the greater sacrifice by God was willingly giving up his godhood, even if only for a while.

The Christmas story is one of grace — unmerited love expressed in a completely unexpected and wholly unselfish way. I caught a glimpse of that grace the other day outside the Jewel on Larkin Avenue, and I wanted to spread it around myself, to share it.

This year’s been tight in my home, but like that young man, my kids are full of such unexpected moments of kindness and warmth. I trust I can return their grace with the same depth of warmth and affection they give to me each day.