And, every year, I go home and my family is waiting, and we get to talking and laughing while I cook and everyone is excited about decorating the tree and wrapping last minute presents and, well, it just never happens.
This Christmas Eve, one of our daughter's flight was seriously delayed and her sister, who was to pick her up at the airport, wisely decided to spend the newly acquired gift of time in some 'alone' time with the new man in her life.
One of Ms. Conroy's head nurses had a terrible accident which landed her son in the Intensive Care Unit. Ms. Conroy tried her best to get a replacement, but ended up having to go into work to cover the 11-7 shift - which was a good thing because two of her patients died on Christmas Eve.
So, I found myself in the unusual situation of being alone on Christmas Eve for the first time in, well, I think, forever. I wasn't alone for all that long. By the time I got home from church, it was around 1:15 AM. Ms. Conroy would be home sometime around 8 AM. I don't think I went to bed much before 2:30 AM and had to be up an at 'em for the 9:30 AM Christmas Service.
I found myself doing some free-thought association - which usually happens when I'm exhausted, sitting in front of the fire and sipping a Maker's Mark. That's when I decided to write down some of the things some of the people say to me in the receiving line on the way out of church on Christmas Eve.
I've grouped them into different categories for simplicity.
First, there's the folk who give you the status updates on the church.
"There's a ceiling light out in front of the altar."
"Brrr. . .it's cold in the sanctuary! I had to put my coat on. You could turn up the heat just a bit, you know. It's Christmas."
And, right behind her comes: "My goodness, it was hot in the church. You know, you could save some money for the church by turning down the thermostat. There's a recession on, in case you hadn't heard."
I smile and say, "Thank you. Merry Christmas!"
The 'Amateur Floral Design Guild' was also present.
Some give an oblique reference: "Gee, the arrangement of poinsettia never changes from year to year. How nice to be so . . . reliable. . ."
Some are more direct: "I've been coming to this church for more years than I can remember and that poinsettia arrangement has NEVER changed. You could be more creative, you know. Time for something a little different, don't you think?"
There's nothing, however, like seeing something through someone else's "new eyes": "I LOVE the way the poinsettias are arranged to look like a Christmas Tree. How really creative. The church looks great!"
(As if I had anything to do with any of that - good or bad. I let the Flower Guild do their ministry. You know. The way I let the sexton make sure the thermostat is set at a comfortable level for the amount of people we anticipate we'll have in the church.)
I smile and say, "Thank you. Merry Christmas!"
There are those who, despite outward appearances, I know are having a "Blue Christmas" - no matter how recent their loss.
Most of the time there's just eye contact. They know I know. There's a long, tight hug and sometimes, someone will whisper, "It's still so hard." And I say, "I know. Hang in there."
One man came last night with his daughter. His wife of 60+ years had died, suddenly, in September. It was the first time I had seen him since the funeral.
He's not a parishioner. He and his wife are fiercely loyal to "their" church, up the road a piece, but they are '28 Prayer Book folk who barely tolerate the radical changes their church has undergone.
Still, they are nothing if not loyal. What they cannot abide, however, is that the 11 o'clock Christmas Eve service is at 8 PM. So, for the past seven Christmas Eves they've come to St. Paul's.
"Merry Christmas," he said, stiffly, formally - nothing really unusual for him, at first blush. He's a real buttoned-down, formal kinda guy. His daughter, however, stood a step behind him. It was the first time I had seen her at this service, or, in fact, in this church. Her eyes were brimming with tears.
"How are you doing?" I asked softly.
"Oh, I'm fine. Just fine," he said. "Lots of friends and family around. Just fine."
As he spoke, his daughter took a step back and, looking at me, shook her head 'no'.
After a brief, awkward silence, she stepped forward and said, "Mother always loved this service. She always talked about it. Now I know why. It was lovely - elegant and yet warm, just like her. It made me feel close to my mother again."
Her father looked at her lovingly, warmly, then sighed and looked back at me and said, "I wouldn't have been any place else in the world tonight."
I smile through my own teary eyes and say, "Thank you. Merry Christmas."
I LOVE to see my college kids come home for the holidays. Yeah, that's right. "My" college kids. The Freshmen are especially fun.
"How's it going? What's your favorite part of college?" I ask.
"COLLEGE!" they reply with unbridled enthusiasm that brings a wince to the faces of the parental units.
Ah, whoever said that youth is wasted entirely on the young was either a jealous person or a concerned parent.
There are other groups of people, lots of other comments - mostly polite words about the sermon, the music, etc.
"Good message," said more than a few folk. I have learned to welcome that comment for its generosity of spirit. Your delivery could be really bad, the story illustration horrid, but the comment lets the preacher know that they got the message.
At least, that's how I choose to hear their message.
In any event, I smile and say, "Thank you. Merry Christmas!"
The ones I love the most are those I call "The Newscasters". They rarely bring 'tidings of good cheer' but mostly want you to be sure to be 'in' on the latest breaking news - which, I suspect, they've been checking on their Blackberry during the sermon.
They usually come in groups of people who are quickly joined by others.
"Did you hear that the Pope got sick at midnight mass?"
"No, he didn't get sick, someone tried to kill him."
"No, someone jumped him and he fell and broke his leg. . . ."
". . .his hip."
"No, that was a cardinal or someone else in the procession."
"That's right, because the Pope got right up and finished the mass."
"Which they had to switch to 10 PM instead of midnight because he's such an old man."
"Well, and because most of the people who watch that on television are older than God. They can't stay up that late any more."
"Hey," someone calls out, "Who cares? We're Episcopalians, remember?"
Ah, and they'll know we are Christians by our love.
Or, at Christmas, by our lights.
In any event, I smile and say, "Thank you. Merry Christmas."
I love these little 'slices of life' that are unintentionally revealed at Christmas. The way some are able to distract themselves by minutia so that they might avoid staying focused on that which is so amazing that they simply can't get their heads wrapped around it.
The way others are so comfortable in God's house and their spiritual home that they want it to look its absolute best - right down to ceiling lights and temperature and the creative / not-so-creative arrangement of poinsettias, depending on your sense of creativity and style.
It's about moments of unspeakable grief that touches the vulnerable heart and the comfort of the familiar and and the consolation of the traditional.
It's about an ancient long-ago story of the Prince of Peace and the breaking news about a Prince of the Church.
God, in God's abundance, reveals all of that to me in that receiving line. I take it in and consider carefully the miracle of the revelation of God-made-flesh - in all of its frailties and imperfections and vulnerabilities.
It is God's Christmas present-as-reminder to me of Emanuel - that God is, indeed, with us and present to us in the Christ child that lives within each of us.
On Christmas Eve, I was also gifted by a story from StoryPeople, a website which features funky little stories-as-poems that almost always have a profound impact.
What do I get for this? I saidI believe that we bring our best 'stuff' to God when we - intentionally or not - bring the common, ordinary, human stuff of our lives into church with us.
& the angel gave me a catalog
filled with toasters & clock radios
& a basketball signed by Michael Jordan
& I said, But this is just stuff
& the angel smiled at me
& swallowed me in her arms.
I'm so glad you said that,
she whispered to me.
I knew you still had a chance.
My role, as priest, is to collect it all and lift up before God all the brokenness of the human enterprise - the sorrows and the joys, the tears and the smiles, the stories, ancient and modern - and make a Christmas Eucharists, saying unto God,
"Thank you. Merry Christmas!"