In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered…. (Read the whole passage)
“You are on mute”
Marlena was waving her arms at her computer screen, trying to look as though she was pointing down at the mute button on the other end of the screen.
It was the morning of Christmas Eve, and she was finishing her final work zoom before Christmas break.
2020 had been that kind of year.
Marlena had been working from home for months. Her event planning and corporate workshop business had to quickly transition from being an in-person service to an online one. She spent her days on zoom helping different businesses hold training events and lead them through corporate team building.
During the same time, Jim’s food distribution company had been incredibly busy. The business they lost from restaurants had shifted quickly to increased deliveries to local grocers and even a residential home delivery service. Jim had to become an expert on COVID-19 protocols overnight.
Lizzie and David had been doing their school from home in the spring and then blended learning through the fall. It meant that Marlena has become a part-time home-school teacher along with being a corporate zoom meeting facilitator.
And still even with busy work and added responsibly at home, their lives had become so small. The kids only saw their friends through their phones, while Jim and Marlena’s social calendar had been wiped clean. Marlena’s book club had moved online, but she just couldn’t spend more time on zoom than was absolutely necessary. They hadn’t seen friends and family in-person since March… other than a few summer walks and socially distanced barbecues – which were only weird and awkward.
“Okay, I can hear you now.” She said to the person on the other end of the call. “Let’s book the next meeting for January”
And then bloop, it was finally done.
Around lunch time, Lizzie and David emerged from their rooms, headphones on and iPads in hand, to appear at the kitchen table just in time for some grilled cheese sandwiches to be served.
“Don’t forget, we are packing meals at the soup kitchen this afternoon.” Marlena said the words out loud, but her kids didn’t seem to be aware that she existed. She heard Jim’s car pull into the garage. He came into the house. “What’s for lunch?” He asked.
Marlena sighed. The two sat down to eat… while David and Lizzie cleared their plates without looking up from their screens.
“Work is all set until the 27th. 3 days off!” Jim sounded both exhausted and excited at the same time. “I thought we could do to that Candy Cane lane drive-thru after the soup kitchen and before church” he said with a half mouthful of grilled cheese.
“Sounds like fun” Marlena said, but her words didn’t match her expression.
Christmas just wasn’t the same this year. Jim had been trying. He bought a real tree, instead of pulling out the old artificial one in the basement. They weren’t travelling so they could water it every day, he reasoned.
They had also been watching a Christmas movie a night since mid-November. They were all starting to blend together, except for the night when they watched Die Hard… Marlena kept waiting for the Christmas part of the movie, but it never really came… just lots of explosions.
Around 5 o’clock, Jim and Marlena, Lizzie and David were all packed into the family car. They were leaving the soup kitchen for their drive down Candy Cane lane. Instead of serving meals like they usually did, they were packing to go containers in a socially distanced kitchen with masks on. Another Christmas tradition that just wasn’t the same.
The family was quiet as they drove through the empty streets of the city. Marlena looked out the window and kept thinking about all the things that Christmas wasn’t this year.
All of a sudden her phone started buzzing.
“Marlena?” It was Father Angelo, the priest from St. David’s.
“I have one more meal to deliver, but all the drivers are gone. Are you still close?”
“Sure” said Marlena. “We can be back to you in 5 minutes.”
Father Angelo handed Marlena the meal and an address.
“Thank you so much” he said.
Marlena just nodded.
10 minutes later, Jim was taking the car through a rougher area of town. A lot of run down rental houses and dingy apartment buildings.
Finally, they pulled up to a particularly unsightly house.
“I can take it” Jim said.
“No, I will. But keep the car running.” Marlena answered.
As Marlena approached the house, the outside light came on and the front door opened.
A woman appeared from behind the door, and there was young boy hiding in her legs. He couldn’t have been more than 3. The woman had a mask on, just like Marlena did.
As Marlena approached, she started to feel like there was something familiar about this woman, but Marlena couldn’t place it.
Marlena was going to leave the box with the meal package on the step, but woman came out to meet her with her arms outstretched.
“Marlena?!?!” The woman gasped.
“Miriam?” Marlena blurted out.
Without thinking, Marlena put the box down and the two women hugged… but only for a moment before stepping back.
“Sorry” they both said.
“Miriam, I thought you and Jesse had gone up north?”
“We did” said Miriam. “For a few years we were. But back in March the work dried up for Jesse. So we came to the city. Jesse has had work off and on since then. Enough to get by, at least until the latest lockdown. Now… it’s been hard this past month. “ said Miriam.
Marlena’s heart was full of compassion in a way that it hadn’t been in a while. She looked down at the little boy in Miriam’s legs.
“And are you Christopher?” Marlena gasped. “You’re huge” she laughed.
“Marlena is the very first person to hold you, ever” Miriam said to her son. Christopher’s jaw dropped the way little kids jaws do.
“I met you the day you were born. Your mom and dad, and my family were all snowed in at a hotel for Christmas. You came a week early. Wait… tomorrow must be your birthday!”
Christopher smiled a big smile… while Miriam had a moment of saddness cross her face. Then she turned back to the house.
“Jesse!” She called “It’s Marlena and Jim. You know, from the motel. When Christopher was born!”
Jesse came to the door, a big grin on his face. As he walked through the light, Marlena could see that he was holding something… or no, it was someone.
“This is Lilly” said Miriam.
“Lilly Marlena” said Jesse.
Soon the two families, all bundled up for winter, were walking down the street. It was a mild and clear winter night.
David and Lizzie were playing peek-a-boo with Christopher behind trees and bushes along the walk. Jim and Jesse were talking about their jobs and the pandemic.
Marlena was looking at Lilly as she walked with Miriam.
“She is only 2 weeks old.” Said Miriam. “She is the reason we came to the city for Jesse to find work.”
“Why didn’t you look us up?” Asked Marlena.
“I don’t know… it felt like it was so long ago. And it was only a two days that we were together. I just didn’t feel like I could ask for help again. You saved us once already.”
“No” Marlena said. “You saved us. You saved me. We were miserable that year. I wanted so bad for it to be the perfect Christmas that I was cranky with my family all month. Then when we were snowed in, I just lost all hope. But when you and Jesse… and Christopher came into our lives, you reminded me, us, that Christmas isn’t about perfect moments and memories.”
Miriam just nodded.
“And here were are again… and we are different kind of miserable. The whole world is.” Marlena’s voice started to break, she took a deep breath and wiped her eyes.
“But look at my kids.” David and Lizzie were smiling and laughing like they hadn’t for months.
“And look at our husbands.” Jim and Jesses were chuckling about something.
“And look at me. Look at you.” Marlena stopped and turned to Miriam “Look at Lilly, this little Christmas baby. I see you and her and your family. And you remind not to let my version of the world take up too much space. You remind me that there is something more going on, even when everything feels heavy and dark. You mind me that God is up to things in this world that are both bigger than I can imagine, but also happening in the smallest out of the places that I forget to look.”
The two women looked at each other and at their families.
Marlena looked to Lilly. “In this child, this little baby, I see hope and promise. I see a future. I see God breaking into this broken world, bringing light and life for us all, when we need it so desperately.
The tears were streaming down both women’s faces now.
Just then some music began playing. It was coming from the school yard nearby.
“Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth, receive her king.
Miriam and Marlena started to laugh with joy. Just then the kids and the dads gasped as a giant firework erupted over head.
“Let every heart, prepare him room
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven and nature sing”
Miriam looked at Marlena and said,
Marlena shook her head., “No, thanks be to God for you.”
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