|Posted by St. Alban's Episcopal Church on December 8, 2021 at 5:15 PM|
I got an after-school job when I was 15. Our neighbor hired me to work in her boutique in a trendy area of Nashville, my hometown. The shop was known as a place to find unique gifts made by local artisans.
That year, I worked my first Christmas Eve of many to come. Desperate customers (I hate to generalize, but I have to be honest—it was mostly men) would come in looking like a deer caught in headlights. My boss, Linda, would deftly guide them toward the jewelry counter to start. Then, after they’d chosen something, I’d ring up their purchases. I’d ask them, “Would you like complimentary gift-wrapping?” They would look at me with palpable relief and say, “Oh, thank you!” every time. So I’d wrap everything as beautifully as I could and wish them a Merry Christmas. Then they usually thanked me again for helping them cross one more thing off their to-do list.
I stayed with this same job all through high school, plus when I would come home for summer and winter breaks all through college and grad school. Eventually I was living and working a thousand miles away, so I told Linda to take me off the payroll. But I would still show up at the shop to work that one day a year. I got paid in gratitude and mimosas. Those Christmas Eves spent helping people find the perfect gift are some of my favorite holiday memories from that era of my life. I used to say that if this whole priesthood thing didn’t work out, maybe I’d start a gift-wrapping business.
Then, after I was ordained (10 years ago tomorrow!) I kept working on Christmas Eve. But instead of gift-wrapping jewelry for desperate and grateful customers, I began distributing communion wafers to people, some of whom may have been desperate, but more often, they were some combination of excited, exhausted, hopeful, stressed, jaded, peaceful, sad…and grateful.
Most people say nothing audible as I hand them the small round portion of Christ’s body. Some say a quiet “Amen.” And a few, I’ve come to find, respond by saying “Thank you.” It always reminds me of the heartfelt “Thank yous” I’d hear when I gift-wrapped something at the shop. This never fazes me, because I know it is not really me they are thanking. Even though the wafers momentarily pass through my hands, the gratitude each of us brings to the altar belongs to God alone.
Last year, our services were online, and we distributed communion wafers from the bell tower as the clock struck midnight. I could see the gratitude even behind the masked faces of those who braved the cold to come.
This Christmas Eve, we will once more open our doors and gather around the altar to receive the gift of Christ’s body and blood. Beginning on Christmas Eve, we will offer wine by intinction for those who desire it. And we will hear once more the story of God’s greatest gift to us—God’s very self—gift-wrapped in human flesh and blood, wailing and nursing and sleeping in turn as shepherds approach and Hosannas ring out on the breeze. This gift was given two millennia ago, and yet it is as fresh and new as ever. This gift is for us. This gift is with us. Despite the lingering uncertainty of these days, we have so much for which to give thanks.
I have worked on Christmas Eve for the past 25 years straight. And, God willing, I plan to keep doing so for the next 25 years, because there’s nothing like seeing the raw gratitude of others to inspire it in yourself.
Yours in Christ,