I had driven four hours to get home for Christmas and looked forward to spending the holiday with my father and younger sister. With my wedding only five days away, this would be a special time for the three of us to share.
I pulled onto our street early in the evening of Dec. 24. Coincidentally, I met my sister driving in the opposite direction. We stopped to greet each other. My sister was happy to see me but had other plans. She was going to spend Christmas with her boyfriend and his family. And Dad? He had been invited to his girlfriend's house and wouldn't be home until quite late.
I spent the next hour or so wandering around the house, struggling with hurt feelings. How could this have happened? My father and sister knew I was coming home. I felt left out, abandoned, unjustly so. Then I went upstairs and discovered the sewing pattern for my sister's maid-of-honor dress and beside it the pile of fabric I had sent her weeks before, still uncut. Now I felt angry and offended as well as hurt. And of all nights for this to happen. Christmas was supposed to be merry!
After a while it became clear to me that even if I couldn't spend Christmas Eve with my family, I certainly didn't want to spend it feeling the way I did. I guess that was the beginning of my prayer.
I turned to God, listening for what He had to tell me. Soon it occurred to me that this quiet evening - without the fuss and commotion that often accompany holiday celebrations - would be the perfect opportunity to get closer to the spiritual meaning of Christmas. This idea didn't come with a sense of pious self-deprivation but with a warm and happy glow of expectancy.
I made a fire in the fireplace and put on a recording of Christmas carols. I got out my Bible, curled up on the couch in front of the fire, and dug into the gospel accounts of Jesus' birth with deep interest and joy.
One new insight that comforted me was that the people congregating (perhaps merrily) in the Bethlehem inn didn't see the newborn Jesus. Rather it was the solitary shepherds who heard the angels sing and were led to find the holy baby in the secret place of the stable.
This didn't mean that my family and others getting together to celebrate Christmas Eve would be deprived of any good. What it did mean to me was that instead of feeling lonely - instead of feeling I was missing something - I could watch for and expect spiritual blessings on this silent night.
As I continued to read and ponder, I saw that the whole message of Christmas is "Immanuel," which means "God-with-us." I wasn't alone after all.
With that realization, I felt the presence of the Christ - the spiritual idea of Truth and Love - as tangibly as if my family were there hugging me.
Sometime during the evening it hit me that forgiving my sister would be a great way to celebrate Christmas, since forgiveness was one of the most striking aspects of Jesus' character. I accepted this invitation. Basking in the Christ presence, I couldn't help forgiving. By the time I climbed into bed, all hurt and resentment were gone. In their place were the deep peace and warmth of spiritual love.
The next day my dad and I spent a happy day with relatives, and the day after, my sister and I teamed up to produce a bridesmaid's dress in record time. One of us stood at the ironing board, pinning seams and pressing them open. The other sat at the sewing machine, flooring the pedal to keep up. We had a very merry time of it.
If you find yourself alone at Christmas, remember the Christ is with you and has specially prepared a feast of spiritual ideas for you in the sweet, secret place of solitude. As the loved carol, "O Little Town of Bethlehem," says: "How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given."