The following story was inspired by another short story Angels We Have Heard On High in the book Joan 'n' The Whale.
It was Christmas Eve.
Snow fell from the sky like light feathers from a down pillow; each snowflake unique and special, then blending in with the rest on the ground in a blinding brightness of white.
The lights from Harvest Church shone like a warm fire in the coldest of winters – a yellow glow on the stark white. Service was about to start.
Pastor John stood patiently before the pulpit, waiting for the congregation to settle down. He heard snippets of women chattering about Christmas decorations and dinner preparations of the turkey, men discussing the increasing prices of decent Christmas trees nowadays and the dangerous conditions of the roads in this weather.
As Pastor John cleared his throat rather loudly, his patience wearing thin, there was a hush over the sanctuary and everyone hurriedly took their seats.
Pastor John stood over the pulpit, his arms holding the sides, and looked each member in the eye. Then he smiled, and a breath of relief went through the church.
Everyone was silent and attentive when he finally began:
“Our Lord was born on this day over two thousand years ago. He was the King of Kings, Prince of Peace, Lord over all of creation. Yet he arrived not in a palace and purple robes befitting his title, but in the humblest manner imaginable – in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes, surrounded by cattle and sheep, in the smallest and most insignificant town in Judea.” He paused.
“Joseph and Mary, who was heavily pregnant, had travelled far from Nazareth to Joseph’s hometown in Bethlehem. When they finally arrived, they were tired and completely exhausted from their journey. But they were told by the innkeeper that there was just no more room,” Pastor John emphasized on the last three words.
Before he could speak his next word, there was a murmur from the back of the church. He stopped in the midst of his sentence and strained his neck over the crowd to see what had happened. Every face in the congregation turned towards the direction of Pastor John’s eyes.
At the entrance of the church was a young couple. They looked a little worse for wear. The young man had a beard a week too old, and his wife (“Are they even married?” the women in the church had begun to gossip) was noticeably pregnant. Both were shabbily dressed, the young woman’s shawl covered with snow.
They seemed embarrassed and the man looked frantically among the pews for an empty seat for both of them to sink into oblivion, away from the public scrutiny they had unintentionally gotten into.
It being Christmas Eve, Harvest Church was packed to the brim. The only available seats were right in the front pew, directly facing Pastor John.
The young man was hesitant at first, but eventually took his young wife’s hand and led her to the front. The disapproving looks of the women and men alike followed them as they made their way down the main aisle to the seats. After what seemed like eternity, the young couple sat down quietly, heads down.
All eyes returned to Pastor John, who had silently watched the young couple, noting the clumsily sewn patches in the young woman’s skirt and the young man’s wrongly buttoned shirt. He shook his head as he scanned his notes for where he had left off.
“In Hebrews 13, the Scripture says ‘Continue to love each other with true Christian love. Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it!” Pastor John was taken aback by the aptness of the verses, considering what had just occurred. The congregation was silent, thoughtful.
Clearing his throat he began again:
“The gospel of John says that ‘He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.’ The people of Israel did not recognize him, the Jewish leaders did not recognize him, and the innkeeper who turned them away did not recognize this precious gift that has been given to us by God for our salvation.” He gave a solemn pause.
“My brothers and sisters, do we recognize him?”
Pastor John sat down beside the young couple in the front pew, offering a small smile to them, as the choir stood up to sing a few Christmas carols.
When they were done, Pastor John stood up at the pulpit again.
“Welcome to Harvest Church. We are so very glad to have some visitors with us this evening.” He looked at the young couple.
“We would like to open a time of sharing right now. Anyone who has a need, or prayer concern to share with the rest of the congregation, please feel free to come on up.” Pastor John held the microphone out, his eyes inviting the young couple to come up.
But before the young man could get up from his seat, old Mizzie Everett ran up to the front as fast as her arthritis could allow her to. An audible groan went up and down the sanctuary. Old Mizzie Everett loved sharing time.
Every time sharing time was open, Mizzie Everett was up there, well, sharing. And the congregation would look away, embarrassed, as she rambled on about her seven cats, their habits, and their latest mischief. They would hum in impatience as she discussed every one of her ailments and aches in excruciating detail.
And she rambled on again, her knuckles white as she grasped the microphone tightly in her disfigured hands.
“Thank you, Mizzie,” Pastor John interrupted, after fifteen minutes.
But old Mizzie Everett did not hear. Or she pretended not to. The congregation was getting restless.
“Thank you, Mizzie,” Pastor John said firmly, after another fifteen minutes had gone by of Mizzie rambling on about every single leak in the roof of her house. He took the microphone from Mizzie and gently nudged her down the aisle back to her seat. “We will be sure to keep that in our prayers.”
The atmosphere in the church tensed as the cordless microphone was passed to the young man. He stood up, shakily.
“This is my wife, Mary,” he gestured to the young woman sitting beside him, head still bent low, “and I’m Joe.”
“J-Joe? As in Joseph?” Pastor John sputtered.
There was excited murmuring in the church as the people wondered about this striking coincidence. The namesakes of the parents of the Lord Jesus Christ?
Joseph and pregnant Mary? A young couple? On Christmas Eve? This is more than a coincidence, Pastor John thought.
Joe smiled, embarrassed. “Yeah, I know what people are thinking. But we’re normal people, really. Our car broke down a few blocks down the road. We were looking for a place to spend the night but noticed the lights from the church. So I figured, what the heck, it is Christmas Eve and all. Why not?” Joe passed the microphone back to Pastor John and sat down abruptly.
“Well,” Pastor John said, unable to think of anything else to say. “Well.”
Suddenly, he smiled.
“Two thousand years ago, Joseph and Mary, carrying baby Jesus in her womb, were turned away. This Christmas, let us recognize our Lord for who he is. This Christmas, let us be sure there is room in our hearts.”
Pastor John sat down as the choir stood up to sing “Angels We Have Heard On High”, his heart full. There was a lesson to be learned here. He smiled as he turned to the young couple and shook their hands.
Entertained angels without realizing it, eh? Everybody would be happy to help this young couple now, Pastor John smiled.
As Pastor John had predicted, during Coffee fellowship after the service, the young couple found themselves surrounded by the beaming faces of many of the members. One member brought them punch, and another, hot cocoa. A member, who was a mechanic, volunteered to look into their car problem early the next day. And more than a dozen of them offered their homes for the young couple to stay for the night.
“You are all too kind,” young Mary gushed, her face radiant.
Pastor John beamed proudly at his members’ hospitality, convinced that this Christmas was going to be the most special one of all.
Amidst the happy chatter and laughter of the congregation and Pastor John’s distinguishable guffaw, old Mizzie Everett stood at the corner of the hall, alone, nursing a now cold cup of cocoa in her pale, bony hands. Nobody noticed her. Nobody wondered about her.
Mizzie was silent as she finished her cocoa and headed slowly towards the outside of the church where she had parked her old bicycle. She got on it, with difficulty, and carefully pedalled out of the compounds of the church, in the direction of her house. Nobody noticed. Nobody missed her.
She was gasping for breath, wheezing terribly as she pedalled slower along the bumpy road.
Oh, my back. It has been hurting so much lately. She sighed. In this frail mortal body, they do not realize how temporal it is. Everything is, until we go home.
Her bicycle squeaked at each pedal she took. She willed herself to keep going until she reached her destination. She slowed down and leaned on one foot as she stopped the bicycle by the roadside. She left her old bicycle lying on its side as she trudged up the snow-covered hill, wincing in pain at each step.
This is it. She gasped for breath, reaching a steep slope. This has been one of the toughest assignments yet. But finally, it is over.
She pictured the golden paths, the magnificent gate, and the glorious voices of the rest as they sing her joyous return, their wings radiating light and beauty. And she thought of the Master, welcoming her home with open arms.
As she reached the top of the hill, the sky above her turned bright. She heaved a final sigh.
Finally, I am going home.
With a crack and a flash of light, Mizzie Everett was gone.