The Christmas wreaths were still hung on the walls of the front meeting room, but it was evident that the season's mirth had ebbed away.
Some of us from the church had gone to the convalescent home to bring advent's good cheer. Since other organizations had clogged the home's December calendar, we stepped aside from our usual first Sunday afternoon of the month to opt for January's first Sunday.
"Even though Christmas is over, we will still sing the carols," someone suggested with the rest of us unanimously agreeing. Therefore, with carol books in hand, we greeted our elderly friends.
One of the women was not very attentive to our being there. She kept pushing the table cloth over the edge while another resident yanked at it from another direction. Both were too senile to understand what they were doing.
Across from those two was another woman who was strapped to her chair so that she would not fall on the floor.
Nevertheless, she kept leaning forward as if to defy the strength of the cloth straps. As we sang forth she mumbled under her breath, evidently not at all happy with her state.
More women than men populated that nursing home so that when we were able to get even a couple of men to attend services we felt quite elated. So it was that one of the men had folded his arms as if in defiance, shouldering himself against our presence.
This is a pitiful sight, I thought to myself as one of the laymen read aloud from Luke 2. I wondered what the several children were thinking to themselves as they pondered the forlorn mood of the room. Certainly this was a
far cry from what they had enjoyed in their own homes during the school vacation.
Still HOLIDAY GREETINGS hung in huge red and white letters from the ceiling's beams. At least they were doing their jobs in reminding us that someone had thought enough of the Christmas joy to tack up the usual saying.
But how secular it all was. Even on the shelves there were only Santa figurines; not a hint of the nativity scene.
Yet surely a number of these elderly folk had church backgrounds and had at one time worshipped faithfully in some sanctuary.
To my right there was a resident who insisted in calling out unintelligible gibberish while we gave forth with "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." How noble of the church people to courteously ignore her clamor in favor of the traditional Christmas strains of gladness.
The staff is to be commended for taking care of these poor people day in and day out, I concluded. I wonder if we are making any impact on their tethered minds, I thought further.
"Let us give it our best!" I cheered on as I announced that "Joy to the World" would be our next carol. That upped the decibels somewhat, but not all that much; thank the Lord for loyal church people who would at least sympathize with the pastor in feeling with him what no one wanted to put into words.
Outside the frosted earth gave us no warmth to encourage our faltering attempts in communicating the gospel story. Frost on the window panes warned of more days of frigid temperatures.
Several times our group was interrupted by outsiders who had come to the home to visit one relative or friend. As the passers-by traipsed through, they cut into what flimsy attention we had mustered.
Some days are like this, I whispered to my soul. Just keep on keeping on--"patient in well-doing."
One of the church women had brought along a large box full of fresh oranges. It was now time for the boys and girls to hand a couple oranges apiece to each of the residents who were in attendance.
As the children wove their ways in and out of the wheelchairs, going around the several tables and then returning again to their own seats, I watched their young faces. They wore smiles that reached up into the older ones' eyes. Their little hands touched the wrinkled ones.
One old woman took hold of a little girl's arm and drew her near. No doubt it had been months since she had touched a child if even seen one carrying such a simple gift.
"The children do make a difference," I said in between verses of the carol. Several nodded in agreement.
Finally it was time for some prayers. But it was difficult to hear the prayers for some of the nursing home folk kept breaking in with their nonsense. Such a pity.
These people were once babies and then toddlers. They once romped as boys and girls, sliding down back slopes and climbing apple trees. They had fallen in love, married and had children of their own. They had held jobs, paid bills and worried about world events. But now they were lined up in a front room, hardly knowing what was going on at Christmas.
The Christmas tree lights kept blinking off and on, oblivious to the surroundings. Being artificial, the tree could well enjoy its stable splendor.
"Now we are going to close with probably the most favorite Christmas carol. Let us all sing 'Silent Night!'"
A sigh seemed to gently breathe from my own as they realized that as willing church folk they had been faithful workers for the Lord. The battle waged against the contradiction of the season's weariness was soon to be won by a benediction.
Yet the marvel happened before our eyes. Whereas, no one from the home had sung in any of the other carols, it was that as one they joined in with the hallowed hymn. Slowly but surely the minds came together, alert and touched by some spell from without.
"'Silent night! Holy night. . .'"
Lips which had seemed glued shut were now moving, singing gladly. They did know what we were up to, why we had come. They were discerning the meaning of Christmas joy for one more year. It was that especially familiar carol which had unlocked their awareness after all.
The two women stopped pushing at the table cloth. The other one quit pulling at her straps. The man unfolded his stiff arms from in front of himself. One by one, the elderly were coming together with the rest of us from the church. By the time we had sung the last verse, the whole mood had changed. One could sense that with the tree's lights our hearts were also set aglow.
It has been worth it after all, I thought. God has honored our being here. His Spirit has reached into the gloomy hearts of those too often forgotten by the rest of the world for most of the year.
"You people have sung so well on that hymn that I think we should sing it again as a prayer to the Christ Child," I offered. With that, the voices reached the ceiling as one face glanced off another, smiling one to another. A wreath of cheer had come down upon all.
As I closed with prayer, I could think of no other words so appropriate to the occasion than those from the carol: ". . .all is bright. . ." Certainly in the gathering together in His name, His glory had embraced us and the season once again.
J. Grant Swank Jr.