Many years ago when I was still in my old parishes I took a Christingle service. We always had Christingle on Christmas Eve and it was always very popular. Parents wanted their children to hear the real meaning of Christmas and they wanted them to hear it from the vicar in church. If the vicar was prepared to entertain their kids on Christmas Eve when they were as high as kites, most parents thought that was a brilliant idea. And everybody wanted to join in singing “Away in a manger” by candlelight. It was a high spot of Christmas for quite a few people.
All those of you who have been to a Christingle will know that although it’s a service which everybody enjoys, it’s really a service for children. So I was a little concerned when a rather dishevelled man came in about three minute before the start, took off his shoes and socks and started to warm his feet in front of the gas fire. These days strange men wandering in to children’s services are inevitably regarded with a certain amount of suspicion. I went across to talk to him but he wasn’t in a mood for a chat so I started the service anyway.
He sat there throughout the service with his feet to the fire and his back to me. Even when the children came forward to receive their Christingles and they were all standing in the aisles he didn’t want to move. He sat there as families left and he sat there as people all around him chatted. It was obvious that he would have stayed there all night so I had a word with a big strapping soldier on leave and asked if he would mind coming with me if I offered to take the chap to the shelter in Lincoln. It was OK by him so I thought I’d solved the problem.
Except that the man didn’t want to go.
By this time all the children had gone but there were a lot of adults left in church, bless their hearts, because they didn’t want to leave me on my own with the man but I really hadn’t got a clue what to do next. I’m a single woman living alone and I didn’t want to take him home with me. I knew the churchwardens wouldn’t agree to leaving the man in church and nobody seemed to have any ideas at all. Stalemate.
Then one of the men stepped forward and I was a bit surprised that he was in his shirt sleeves. He’d taken off his jacket and he put it around the stranger’s shoulders saying, “That’ll keep you warm and there’s some cash in the pocket too.” Then the floodgates opened and the pockets were filled with rather crackly gifts but after a few gifts the chap stopped us giving him more saying he’d got enough now. He’d probably been given about £70 to £80 which is hardly a fortune.
Somehow, though, the atmosphere relaxed. One or two more people left the church and a woman prison officer had a word with the man and then took him home with her to have some hot soup. Another man had a word and discovered that the man didn’t want to go to Lincoln but he’d got friends in Scunthorpe so he arranged to take him. I breathed a sigh of relief, bade farewell to the stragglers and went home.
But the memory of that night will never leave me for that night I think I met a prophet. Prophets aren’t fortune tellers. They’re not really into predicting the future. What prophets do is to make us look at the present and see it for what it really is and more important make us see ourselves for what we really are.
We’d all gone to church that night to celebrate the birth of Christ. We were all good Christian folk and I’m pretty sure that all of us had made our charitable donations in the run up to Christmas. We’d all heard the bidding prayer which reminded us that because this of all things would rejoice his heart, we should remember, in his name, the poor and helpless, the cold, the hungry, and the oppressed; the sick and them that mourn, the lonely and the unloved.
We’d all heard that and we thought we were all good Christian people. We’d done our bit and there are systems and charities in place to care for everybody. It took a stranger to remind us that Christ did not come to bring systems but to bring love. The stranger reminded us whilst Christ loves all humanity he also loves each human and asks us to love and care in his name. He was pretty low down in the social heap but he had friends and he had preferences even if it was just to go to Scunthorpe not Lincoln and no, I didn’t know what was best for him
John the Baptist was a prophet in the wilderness of Judaea. May we recognise God’s prophets wherever we find them.
(I'm linking with Tracing Rainbows Pause in Advent. Sorry I didn't post anything last week.)