A story that rings true in many human hearts

Peter Seal, 24 December 2018

Isaiah 9: 2–7; Luke 2: 1–20

A Christmas story at midnight:

Once upon a time, many years ago, a young priest went to serve in a rundown church. In its day that church had flourished: famous men had preached there; rich and poor alike had worshipped there; it had been well cared for. The good days had now passed. A new beginning was needed. The young priest was full of faith and hope.

Just a few days before Christmas, a terrible storm whipped down the valley. Buildings were damaged and, in the church, a huge chunk of rain-soaked plaster fell away from the inside wall, just behind the altar. It left a nasty, unsightly hole. This was a bad blow for the young priest.

Later that day there was an auction in aid of the youth group. The auctioneer opened a box to discover a gloriously beautiful, very ornately sewn, gold and ivory lace tablecloth. It was magnificent and nearly 15 foot long. It too dated from a long-vanished era. There were a few half-hearted bids, and then the priest had an idea. Up went his hand … the tablecloth was his.

Returning to church, he carefully fixed the glorious gold and ivory lace cloth to the wall behind the altar. It completely hid the unsightly hole. The extraordinary beauty of its shimmering handiwork cast a fine, golden glow.

On Christmas Eve, on his way to prepare for Midnight Mass, the priest noticed a woman standing in the cold at the nearby bus stop. He knew it was still 40 minutes until the bus was due, so he invited her into the church to keep warm. She told him of how she had come from the nearby city to be interviewed as a governess for a local wealthy family. She hadn’t been successful. Suddenly, she looked and saw the great gold and ivory cloth. She got up and stood close by; she had what you might describe as remembering eyes.

She took up a fold of the cloth and gently rubbed it between her fingers. Tears welled up – happy tears of recognition. ‘It’s mine’, she said, ‘my banquet cloth. My husband had it made for me.’

She explained how she and her husband were Jews, and how during the war, in order to flee from the Nazis, they had been advised to separate and travel alone. She had gone to Switzerland.

She never saw her husband again, later hearing that he had died in a concentration camp. The woman wept, explaining how she felt that it was her fault that he had died – she shouldn’t have left without her husband. It was as though her long years of wandering had been a punishment.

The priest offered her the cloth. She refused: ‘You need it here; it has a purpose. I am happy knowing it’s here.’ And she left to catch her bus.

During the Christmas services, the cloth looked its best, lit by soft candlelight – everyone admired it. The Christmas collection was very generous. In the early New Year, the priest had enough money to repair the church wall.

The local clock repairer had a gentle, middle-aged face. When he came to the church he gazed at the cloth in great astonishment. As if transfixed, he walked and touched it. ‘It’s strange’, he said, ‘many years ago my wife – God rest her soul – had such a cloth. She used to spread it on the table for special occasions.’

The priest told the clock repairer about the woman. The startled man clutched the priest’s arm and said, ‘Can it be her?’ as tears streamed down his cheeks. They contacted the family where the woman had been interviewed, got her address and drove into the city together to find her.

The clock repairer knocked on the heavy, weathered door. As it opened, there stood his beloved wife. The many years of separation were immediately washed away by their blissful tears, as they held one another in a loving embrace.

Tonight, together in this holy place, we recount the over-arching story of God living among the people he loves. Whether you believe the story of Jesus’ birth to be true or not – and it’s best to see it as a painting rather than a photograph – there’s no doubt at all that the Christmas story continues to ring true in many human hearts.

The story of the man and woman and the tablecloth, and the story of the birth of Jesus, share common themes – which are good news for us. They speak of faithful love; of making the very best of bad situations; of the possibility of reconciliation; of renewal and forgiveness; of the place of beauty in our lives.

As each of us faces the future, come what may, we can be sure that God is with us in the evening and the morning and, most certainly, in every new-born day.

(Story source unknown)