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Christmas 13

December 16, 2004

Pine Tree Village, Donvale

I can only really remember one Christmas in detail. It was 1961. I was on a train as part of a small group of fellow students from United Theological College, Bangalore. We were on our way to a YMCA conference in Allahabad. In the compartment with us was a turbaned Sikh. Sikhs are the warriors of India. Each man belonging to the Khalsa, the Sikh brotherhood, carries a dagger. We must have been apprehensive: we said nothing about Christmas. He was the one, who said, “You Christians must be very happy. It’s Jesus’ birthday.”

Catherine’s most memorable Christmas was 1960.

The family spent Christmas at the family farm. Her sister, her brother-in-law and their two girls were there. She was there with her husband, Peter, and their three children.

Two of the granddaughters prepared an altar in front of the living room fireplace. The youngest grandchildren lit the candles. Then, with all the family gathered around him, grandfather read Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus. Carols were sung. Catherine’s mother, family storyteller, gave them an old favourite, Why the Chimes Rang. They could almost see the ragged little boy creeping up the long cathedral aisle and slipping his gift onto the altar.

Then she said, “You know, I’d like to make a suggestion. The floor under the tree is piled high with gifts we’re giving to one another. But we’re celebrating Christ’s birthday, not each other’s. This is his time of the year. What are we going to give to Jesus?”

She went on, “Let’s think about this for a moment. Then we’ll go around the circle, and each of us will tell what gifts he or she will lay on the altar for Christ’s birthday.”

Chester, seven, crept close to his dad, Peter, for a whispered consultation. Then he said shyly, “What I’d like to give Jesus this year is not to lose my temper any more.”

Jeffrey, four, who’d been slow in leaving behind night-time nappies, was quite specific: “I’ll give him my nappies.”

Winifred said softly she’d give Jesus better grades in school. Catherine’s bother-in-law, Len’s offering was “to be a better father, which means a gift of more patience.”

So it went on. Peter’s offering was significant: “What I want is to give Christ a more dedicated life.” Catherine remembered that five years later at his ordination into the Presbyterian ministry. Yet, at Christmas 1960 ministry was probably the last thing on his mind.

Then it was her father’s turn.

“I certainly don’t want to inject too solemn a note into this, but somehow I know that this is the last Christmas I’ll be sitting in this room with my family gathered around me like this.”

They all gasped – and protested. But he wouldn’t be gainsaid. “No I so much want to say this. I’ve had a wonderful life. Long, long ago I gave my life to Christ. Though I’ve tried to serve him, I’ve failed him often. But he has blessed me with great riches – especially my family. I want to say this while you’re all here. I may not have another chance. Even after I go into the next life, I’ll still be with you. And, of course, I’ll be waiting for each of you here.”

There was love in his brown eyes – and tears in the eyes of the rest of the family. No one spoke for a moment. Time seemed to stand still. Flickering candlelight played on the children’s faces as they looked at their grandfather, trying to grasp what he was saying.

He died four months later on 1st May. His passing was like a benediction. It happened one afternoon, as he sat quietly in a chair in the little post office, talking to some of his friends. His heart just stopped beating. That Christmas Eve he had know with a strange sense of sureness that the time was close.

Over the years that followed whenever Catherine thought of her father, she remembered that Christmas. For a brief moment real values came clearly into focus: her father’s gratitude for life; her mother’s strong faith; her husband’s quiet strength; her son’s inner yearning momentarily shining through youthful ambitions; the eager faces of the children groping towards understanding and truth; the reality of the love of God, as all their thoughts focused on Him whose birth they were commemorating.

That was Catherine Marshall’s most memorable Christmas.

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