For as long as she could remember she had tried to be a good person. When ‘hands’ were needed she would be among the first to volunteer. No job was too big or too difficult. Anastasia (not her real name) would pitch in and do what was needed. No questions; no complaints. She was supportive. Anyone with a good idea only had to tell her and she would help find a way to make that idea a reality. She never wanted credit. Always humble, she was more than content to stand on the sidelines when the accolades were given. “I like it that way,” she said.
She was no stranger to the church. She had always been a regular but, since her retirement from the classroom about five years ago, she’d made the visits part of the daily routine. Sometimes it was to worship and sometimes to meditate. Often her visits were to lend her usual hand at the food bank or whatever else needed doing…selling tickets, working on the door, chaperoning, writing the reports…it didn’t matter.
“I’m content,” she said. Inside, though, there was always that longing. She just knew there should be more but she felt that it was not her place to ask for too much. Besides, she hated it when people were pushy toward her so she did not want to be that way with others.
And thus it had been her whole life. At school and at university she had been a diligent and involved student. Academics and student affairs had been it. She never had time for personal relationships.
Her career had been much the same. Thirty students at a time are a handful, and besides, there were the extra-curricular activities and the other things she did…school, church, community. Again, no time left for the personal stuff. Time passed.
She retired. It had been okay at first—that is if you count the summer break as ‘at first.’ Once the fall came around and school started up again she missed being at the centre of the bustle normally associated with classroom life. After a few restless weeks she returned to volunteering, here and there around the community. She had a feeling something was coming. Anticipation. She did not know what it was but…it just had to be close.
It was cold at first, but that would change. Once the people arrived—and on Christmas Eve there would be quite a few—the whole place would warm up; a welcome change from the normal…hard to pay the bills when the young people are leaving in droves and ‘at work’ was a 6-hour flight away for most. Thank god for Skype and Facetime. As was her custom she settled in and meditated. From time to time a ‘regular’ would bend near and exchange a few words. Something was different this evening. She found her eyes drawn, again and again, to the nativity scene which had been constructed at the front. Aside from the store-bought figures it had been constructed from locally obtained materials; mostly spruce and fir branches and lined with some hay.
Trees that grow near the shoreline of Newfoundland and Labrador’s coasts rarely become tall and full. The rocky, acidic, peaty soil is ideal for evergreens but the salt-spray, driven by the cold, persistent onshore winds is not. The trees are short, bent and sparse; nothing at all like the ones that grow further inland. Like the people that also inhabit the coasts, though, they are resilient; hardy and able to bend with the gale. How else are you to survive, clinging precariously to the edge; cold salt water on one side and rocky, turfy windswept bog on the other?
“How cold it must have been. How uninviting,” she thought. Again and again…eyes looking at the same place, same thoughts…
The service began but, in truth, she hardly noticed. Almost sixty Christmas Eves and she had never once missed. Besides, she had likely attended over six-thousand services by then.
The learning process generally starts with deliberate, focused effort. Whatever it is—a movement, a language or, more likely, a complex interaction of a lot of things—is usually done slowly and shakily at first. With practice comes precision and speed. With time—a lot of time—come degrees of mastery. Frequently, at that point, the actions and decisions become more reflexive. The contemplative ‘pre-frontal-cortex’ of the brain plays less and less of a role and the impetus comes from lower down. In Anastasia’s case that’s much the way it had become with the services. She’d participated in enough that she had learned most of the parts, even the liturgy, off by heart and, likewise, the responses, both physical and vocal, were automatic.
That left her mind free to wander. Normally she did not stray much except to feelings; always that sense of anticipation coupled with the longing. Tonight, though, she kept returning to the scene and to the tiny figure roughly bundled up—wool probably—but scarcely protected from the elements. “A lot like back in the cove,” she thought. “At least wool is warmer than flour bags.”
Then a Hymn, one she had heard many times before. Heard, yes, but not listened too. “A ray of hope,” began the soloist. This one was different. It had a spoken part. The rhythmic break jarred her thoughts back to the present; reality. She heard, “And the world is waiting,” while her eyes were still fixed on the nativity scene.
It was like a wave broke, right on her; didn’t bring her to her knees but certainly set her back right on her seat. Not too suddenly that anyone really noticed though. All she was aware of was the salt tears running down her face. She buried her face in her hands and gave in.
A belief system. It serves as a guide, a way to move skillfully along life’s journey. It provides a structure, encourages reflection and always reminds followers to observe a code of behavior. For most, the code finds, at its roots, some version of the so-called ‘golden rule.’ Hillel the Elder, the first-century Rabbi is said to have accepted a challenge from an ‘unbeliever’ who stated he would convert if Hillel could recite all of the Torah while standing on one foot. His response? “That which you find hateful, do not do unto others. The rest is commentary—go and learn it!” Followers the world over, regardless of location or professed creed would easily find agreement.
Too often, though, the practices stray from Hillel’s summary. Conviction turns to something else—a form of madness maybe—and the summary becomes, “Worship MY God, MY way, or I’ll kill you.” This belligerent attitude knows no bounds, whether it be by age, location or creed.
Like the golden rule, though, all Religions have aspects, beliefs, traditions and stories that are acknowledged as having universal value. The Christian story of Christmas is one of those, but you have to know where to look. Only Matthew and Luke make reference to the event. Luke dwells primarily on Mary and the time before the birth. Matthew focuses mainly on Joseph and the time after. It’s hard to reconcile the two stories exactly and, sadly, neither John nor Mark makes reference to the early life. We can quibble about the details. Are the events accurately and completely recorded? Do the writings contain embellishments carried over from other oral/written traditions so as to broaden the appeal of this particular story; to make it relevant to more people? After all, to some, ‘more’ equates with ‘better.’ Or, as it has often been argued, are those particular parts of the writings intended to be taken as primary allegorical? Fortunately, settling the debate has no bearing on this particular story.
The part we can agree on has to do with humility. The birth happened in a little town. The parents, who lived in an even smaller one, were, by most measures, ordinary people living in difficult times. The event itself was significant but not necessarily spectacular. The child went on to have a mostly low-key life—all but the few years at the end were hardly worthy of note, at least according to the established written accounts.
Yet, the story reveals a stunning change. This humble little child, in just a few short years of early adulthood, begin a movement that has reverberated through every part of the Earth since that time.
You can believe as much—or as little—of the story as you like. Christians believe that child to have been “THE” Son of God; others believe that he was a great prophet and “A” son of god, but maybe not the one and only. Again—no matter for now. What is relevant is a simple item: a story of how one humble but persistent individual changed the minds and hearts of a few people during his lifetime. Those people subsequently set in motion a striving for something better; a striving that has continued for two-thousand years.
To paraphrase Hillel: Read the texts for yourself. While the subsequent commenters and theologians have added words, messages and nuances, it is clear that the child in the story brought a single, simple message: Do it; make this world the best place it can possibly be.
A gentle hand touched her shoulder. From somewhere she heard a whispered voice. “Miss Anastasia, are you okay?” It took a while for the voice to register. It took another minute or so to come back to the place and time; to wipe away the tears and to gather up the nerve to look around. How many had seen this? Fortunately those gathered had been more attentive to the music and had failed to see the little figure that had been hunched forward in the pew for the past minute or so. The hand—it was…Sean. Thank God. She wouldn’t have to explain too much. “No, I’m alright. I just needed a minute. You know how it can sometimes be this time of the year.” His gaze met here and he smiled slightly, than gave her a little hug. Yes, he did know how it can be sometimes.
The wave…it had washed some things away. She felt different somehow; a bit more free; a bit bolder, even. She was no longer waiting.
“That was a turning point,” she says. From that point forward she was a different person, although you had to know her, had to look carefully to actually see the change. She was still the same selfless individual she always was. Others still mattered to her, but now it was different. She became a little more vocal. While she still listened to others with the same acuity she always had, she was now more inclined to respond back, to suggest changes and even, occasionally when she judged it right, to say that one-word sentence, “No,” to some things. But she still got things done. Now, though, those things mattered more and were done more out of a sense of love than responsibility.
Most importantly, Anastasia is no longer waiting.
As you may have already suspected, Anastasia and Sean are not a real persons. Well, not two individuals at least. They are, rather, a blend of several people I know. There may even be bits of people I have been from time to time blended in there as well.