This takes me back to a memory long ago. Lisa and I were recently married and serving with A Christian Ministry in the National Parks. During this time in our lives, we worked in National Parks and led Sunday worship services in the campgrounds or indoor meeting places. At this time we were living in Stove Pipe Wells, Death Valley, CA. We were living in an employee dorm in the park, and our housing was one room and a bath, which we shared with our cat. A very dark and dusty room as I remember! We had a hot plate, and our refrigerator was an ice chest. The nearest grocery store was more than an hour away.
As Christmas approached, a dear friend of Lisa's sent us a wonderful gift; a box with a tiny artificial tree, ornaments, and strings of lights far too long for the tree! We stung lights and placed the 12 inch Christmas tree in the window. I don’t remember any shopping or presents that year, any special favorite treats or comfort foods. It felt to us that we were without a home, nomads wandering in the desert.
Like most of the park employees, we were scheduled to work on all of the holidays, Christmas included. So Lisa and I organized a Christmas Eve Service after the work day for all the park employees and guests. To our great surprise the entire park staff came out for the Christmas Eve Service. From the hotel manager to the District Park Ranger, those who worked as maids in the hotel to the bus boy in the restaurant. The room was full as we began, without musical accompaniment, to sing Christmas carols that night. Though it was a Christmas Eve Service stripped clean of glitter, candles, banners or stars, Christ’s Spirit was very much evident. A simple service, for simple people of faith, longing for God's presence. Christ came and met us where we were.
I learned that Christmas does not need to be a fancy production. But then we knew that, didn't we, from the first Christmas, when a poor couple took refuge in a stable because there was no room for them in the inn. They nestled their newborn son in a manger. Christ found his home on earth among us.
And so, as we prepare this Advent, I am reminded to simply open my heart to the true gift of Christmas. God coming as a child, innocent and defenseless into the bedlam of our world. Whether we celebrate Christmas grandly or simply is not the point. Our focus is directed to Christ, who comes to us where we are, as suburban or city dwellers, as nomads or kings. That Christmas in the desert was special, not for the gifts or celebration, but because Christ was present.