(A modern Christmas story set in Wheaton, Evangelicalism’s Bethlehem.)
He arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare airport onTWA flight 801 from Israel. The plane was two hours late, but the delay made little difference, since there was no one to meet him. It was December 23, a Friday afternoon. The terminal building pulsed with people coming home for Christmas, relatives meeting people coming home, businessmen and students trying to get on flights for Cleveland and New York, Seattle and Atlanta, so they could be home for the holidays.
The Israeli had gone through immigration and customs in New York. He had no baggage, only a small airline bag with a broken zipper. Christmas carols issued from concealed speakers the length of a long corridor into the main building, interrupted only by announcements of arriving flights, departing flights, boarding areas now open, passengers being paged. He walked down the corridor listening, watching people.
In the main terminal building a massive, white-flocked Christmas tree, decorated with golden balls, stood in a corner beyond the telephone booths and rows of seats. He turned aside to examine the tree, then stepped onto an escalator marked “Down to Baggage and Ground Transportation.”
“Excuse me,” he said to a pretty girl at the Avis counter, “can you tell me how to get to Wheaton, Illinois?”
“Easiest way is to rent an Avis car and drive there,” she replied. “Only thing, we don’t have any available. I’m sorry. Unless you have a reservation, that is. If you don’t, you might try Number One over there.”
“Thank you, but I don’t drive. Is there a bus?”
“I don’t think so. You’ll have to take a cab.”
He repeated his question to aman in uniformwho stood near the door of the terminal, explaining that he didn’t think he had enough money for a cab.
“Take the bus to the Loop,” the man said. “Get off at the Palmer House, walk back to State Street, down State to Madison—get that? On Madison, get a bus to the Chicago and Northwestern Station. You can get a train there forWheaton. Bus is loading now.”
The young Israeli murmured his thanks and walked outside the terminal building. He shivered as the sharp wind whipped through his light topcoat. It was snowing.
“Please tell me when we get to the Palmer House,” he asked the bus driver.
“First stop,” the driver said.
The bus cruised down the expressway. Lights and signs and thousands of cars. Trucks and shopping centers and Christmas trees and lights. Signboards in green and red, “Merry Christmas” in letters two feet high.
“Palmer House,” the driver called.
The Israeli left the warm bus. A blast of cold air off the lake hit him as he stepped down to the sidewalk. His teeth chattered; he turned the ineffectual collar of his coat up around his neck. At the corner he hesitated, then stopped to look at the jewels and expensive ornaments in Peacock’s window. Then he hurried on, after asking a policeman which direction Madison Street was. Almost running because of the cold wind and driving snow, he covered the three blocks to the other bus quickly. It was crowded; he stood between an elderly woman who kept sneezing into the elbow of her ragged coat, and a teenage boy, his arms full of packages.
At the Chicago and Northwestern Station he bought a ticket to Wheaton, then sat in the waiting room for half an hour. Once he went over to the newsstand to buy a paper. The front page had stories about war, politics, and crime; a photograph of a wan child with leukemia, slumped in a wheelchair beside a smiling actress and a Christmas tree at Children’s Hospital; a reminder of “One Shopping Day Left Before Christmas.”
Finally he boarded the train. It was so hot inside, and he was so tired from his trip,which had started the previous day in the Middle East, that he fell asleep.
About an hour later the conductor shook him awake. “You want to get off at Wheaton, this is it.”
The young Israeli stepped down onto the snow-covered station platform. He almost fell as his foot slipped on the smooth surface.
“Careful there, young fellow.” The conductor clutched his arm.
He crossed the tracks to the sidewalk. As he looked hesitantly in both directions, a young woman smiled at him. She was leaning against a green Vega.
“Hi,” she called.
“Hello,” he answered. “So this isWheaton.”
“It is, for better or for worse.”
“Is there any worse?”
“Yes. Me, for instance. You look cold.Where are you going?”
“I’m not sure.”
“It’s darned cold talking out here. How about coming up to my apartment?
It’s only a few blocks over—I’ll drive you.”
“Thank you. Do you live with your mother or someone?”
“No, I live alone. Say, are you from around here? Or maybe Glen Ellyn? I saw you get off the train.”
“I’m from Israel.”
“You’re Jewish, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I’m Jewish. And you’re Mary.”
“How did you know? Did someone tell you about me?” An edge of belligerence showed in her voice.
“You had to be Mary.”
“What do you mean, I had to be Mary? Why couldn’t I be Judy or Jean or Connie?”
“Because you’re Mary.”
“If you’re from Israel, you’re a long way from home. Do you have any friends here? I mean, is anyone expecting you?”
“Nobody’s expecting me. And I haven’t a place to stay, so I’m in the market for one.”
“You can stay with me for a few days.”
“Thank you, Mary. Any other suggestions?”
“I mean it. It’ll be nice having company over for Christmas. You won’t put me out.”
“Mary, I do appreciate your invitation, I do. But are there any other possibilities?”
“Well, there’s a house over near my apartment building, where the lady takes roomers. She’s really old—and safe. Maybe she’d have a room for you.”
“Would you drive me there so I can find out?”
“Sure. Get in the car—you must be freezing.”
“I am. This coat was made for Jerusalem, not Chicago.”
“Or Wheaton. This is a cold place too.”
The elderly lady had a room, which the Israeli took. He had barely enough money for one week’s rent.
Mary saw him count out the bills, and saw how little was left in his wallet.
“Look,” she said, “I just got paid. Let me give you something to tide you over.”
“Mary, you’re generous. I don’t think I’ll need it, though. After all, I’ll only be here over Christmas.”
“Well, as long as you don’t forget that I’m ready to help you—no strings attached.”
“No strings attached.”
“Hey, it’s almost seven o’clock and I haven’t eaten yet.”
“We had a big meal on the plane from New York, so I’m not hungry.”
“Good. In that case I know where we can get enough to eat without having to pay for it. This Christian publishing company is having a sort of Christmas open house this evening. The public’s invited to see their new building.We can go and fill up on cookies and punch.”
“Sounds interesting. Let’s go.”
Mary drove several miles, then parked her car in the parking lot of a rather imposing one-story building.
“Look here,” she said as they closed the car doors, “we don’t have to stay very long.”
“All right, Mary. By the way, what are those other buildings?”
“That one’s Christian Youth headquarters, the next one’s Sunday School, the one down the road there is Congo Missions. Let’s go in out of the cold.”
Inside the building, a table was placed in front of a Christmas tree. The tree was decorated with hundreds of little Bibles, about the size of a child’s hand, hanging from the branches. The table was covered with a white cloth and decorated with holly. A poinsettia plant in the center was surrounded by sandwiches, Christmas cookies, a silver coffee service, plates, cups, napkins, and spoons. An empty punch bowl stood at one end of the table.
“I’m sorry we’ve run out of punch,” said the lady seated at the other end of the table. “May I pour you some coffee?”
“Yes, please.” Mary extended her hand for the cup.
“Could you get me some water, please?” asked the young Israeli. “Maybe just fill up the punch bowl.”
“Oh, we won’t need to do that,” the lady replied. “That many people won’t be wanting water tonight.”
“Why don’t you do like he says?”Mary asked. “Maybe he’s really thirsty. Or maybe some other people will be. It’s hot in here, you know. Or hadn’t you noticed?”
“Certainly,” the lady said. “Bob, could you come here a moment? Will you please fill the punch bowl up with water?”
Bob returned after several minutes, carrying the large bowl awkwardly because of its weight. “Strangest thing happened,” he said in an excited voice. “When I took it out in the kitchen it was empty, except for some ice. But when I turned the faucet on, and began filling the bowl, it wasn’t like water at all. Look, it’s dark red.”
“Let’s have a taste.”
“I can’t believe it. I really can’t. There’s—yes, I’m sure it’s wine in that punch bowl. Bob, tell us the truth.What really happened?”
“Just like I said. When the water from the kitchen faucet ran into the punch bowl, it turned to what’s in there now. Honest it did.”
“I haven’t tasted that stuff in fifteen years, not since I was saved. But there’s no doubt about it—that’s wine, and it’s the best.”
“Bob, will you please take it back out in the kitchen and pour it down the drain?We can’t have word get around that we served an alcoholic beverage here at our open house.”
“I’m sorry about what’s happened, Sir,” she said to the Israeli. “Would you like some coffee?”
“No, thank you. I’ll just have some of these sandwiches and cookies.”
A few minutes later, Mary suggested they leave. And they did.
“That was great,” she said as they drove away in her car. “I don’t know how you did it, but it was just great.”
“I’m tired—I guess it must be the time change form Israel to here. You won’t mind driving me back to my room now?”
“Of course not. And I won’t even try to get you to stop at my apartment first.”
Next morning the young Israeli slept late. When he left the house, he saw Mary waiting in her car at the corner. It had snowed all night, and the heavy flakes were still coming down.
“How long have you been waiting here?” he asked as he opened the car door.
“Oh, ten—maybe fifteen minutes. That’s all.”
“It would have taken a lot longer than that for the windshield to get this covered with snow.” As he sat down in the warm car, he brushed the snow from his thin topcoat.
“Hey, I have something for you,” she said.
“What is it, Mary? Say, will you please turn that radio down? I can hardly hear you, and I feel as if I have to shout to make myself heard.”
“Sure. That’s WLS, by the way. Here’s what I got for you.”
“A heavy coat and earmuffs! Mary,Mary. You knew how cold I was, and you bought me some warm clothes. Do you mind if I put them on right now?”
“I’ll mind if you don’t.”
As they sat at breakfast in a small restaurant, Mary and the Israeli were silent for a long time. Finally the Israeli spoke.
“Mary, you’re sick of it, aren’t you?”
“Up to here.” She put her hand to her mouth.
“Things will be different.”
“They already are. I know you now. Please stay for a while.”
“Not for long.”
“Long enough to make sure the change is permanent?”
“It will be. I don’t need to stay around here for that, Mary.”
“Long enough to change this town?”
“No, I can’t stay that long. Just until tomorrow night.”
“Christmas night. Then I must leave.”
“It’s funny, having you here in Wheaton for Christmas. And funnier that I’m the only one who knows you’re here.”
“You were there at the Northwestern station to meet me.”
“Am I glad I was!”
“Let’s finish our coffee and leave.”
“Look, I have to work this afternoon. You take my car. You can drop me off, and maybe pick me up around six o’clock. Or I can walk home. It’s not far. But you can use my car to get around in today.”
“I don’t drive. Thanks anyway, Mary. But I’ll manage without transportation today. Especially with this warm coat.” He smiled at her.
“Do you like it? I hoped you would. Now I’ll have to get to work. How about meeting me for supper tonight? I’ll stop by your house for you at six-thirty or seven. Then later we can go to the Christmas Eve service at church. I haven’t been there for a while, but I’d like to go again.”
“Fine, Mary. I’ll be looking for you around six-thirty.”
He walked all over town that afternoon, stopping at the county jail, a convalescent home, and the church parsonage.
A middle-aged, worried-looking woman answered the door at the parsonage.
“Yes?” she said.
“I’m a stranger here, from Israel. I thought I’d stop by to meet the pastor.”
“He’s very busy today—the day before Christmas, you know, and Christmas on a Sunday this year. But step inside. I’ll call him.”
He waited inside the door for several minutes. Then the pastor came downstairs with his wife.
“James, this is a man from Israel who wants to meet you. I told him how busy you are this afternoon.”
“Never too busy to meet one of the Lord’s people. Welcome!” He gripped the younger man’s hand. “Are you here for long?”
“Just through Christmas. I’ll leave tomorrow night.”
“Well, it’s great to meet you. Will you be in church tomorrow? We’re especially interested in Israel—our church supports two missionaries there. Israel General Mission. Know it?”
“I’ve heard of it.”
“‘To the Jew first,’ I always say. Maybe you’d share something with us at our morning service tomorrow. Our missionary conference is coming up in February and it won’t hurt a bit to have a word about Israel and missions on Christmas Sunday morning.”
“I’ll be glad to speak.”
“Just briefly, you understand. Five minutes at the most. We’ll really be pushed for time tomorrow—special music, you know. Probably you have the same problem with time back home in Israel.”
“Perhaps things are a little more simple there. Yes, I’ll stick to the five minutes.”
“Good. The Lord bless you. Is it still snowing out? I’ll see you tomorrow—don’t trip on the raised sill.”
The Israeli returned to his room in the house where he was staying.
A little after six-thirty he saw the green Vega parked in front of the house. He heard a light sound of the horn as he went downstairs, pulling on his new, warm coat. Mary leaned over to open the door. “It’s great to see you again. I thought the afternoon would never end.”
“I guess my afternoon went quickly because I did so much walking and saw so many different people. But I’m certainly glad to see you again,Mary.”
“Look, is it all right with you if we go up to my apartment to eat?”
Before he could answer, she added, “There will be other people there, friends of mine.”
“I’d like nothing better.”
“But we’ll probably get talking and won’t get to the Christmas Eve service at church. In fact, these friends of mine wouldn’t go anyway.They’re not the church kind. They’re like me—like I was before I met you.”
“Supper with you and your friends sounds a lot more interesting—and worthwhile—than sitting through a Christmas Eve service.”
“Do you really mean it? I was afraid you’d be like the rest—oh, that wasn’t a kind thing to say. I’ve got so much to learn.”
By now they were climbing the stairs to the second-floor apartment.
From inside the door came sounds of the Living Dead.
“It’ll be noisy,”Mary said as she opened the door. “Hi,” she called out to the six or seven forms sprawled on chairs and on the floor. “Turn that record player down, someone. I want you all to meet my new friend. I’ve only known him one day, but in my whole life nobody has ever known me so well. He’s from Israel.”
“Welcome, Israeli. How are the Arabs?”
“Suffering, as they have for centuries. Like my own people.”
“We’ll eat soon, gang,”Mary called as she went into the tiny kitchen. She turned toward the Israeli, “Come and help me.”
Before long, spaghetti was overflowing a large bowl, and long loaves of bread, buttered and flavored with garlic, were placed on the table next to a bowl of green salad. The table had no cloth on it. Paper plates and red paper napkins were set out, with stainless steel utensils.
When the food was on the table, Mary announced, “Before we eat, my Israeli friend will pray.”
There was a whisper, “Mary has a new hang-up.”
The Israeli stood in the kitchen doorway. “Father,” he said, “I thank You for this spaghetti and for Mary’s kindness to us all. Make Your name glorious in this room tonight.”
No one sat at the table. They ate from their laps, or placed their plates on the floor, where they sat or reclined. At first the music was so loud it was hard to talk, except to one other person. But as they were finishing the meal, Mary turned down the volume. Then the whole group began to discuss war and peace, sex and drugs, life, race (two of them were black),Camus and Christmas.
The Israeli listened most of the time, although he asked a lot of questions. His occasional comments were brief. He also told several stories.
As the evening passed, they began to ask him questions. His answers were direct, without pressure.
At midnight Mary said, “Merry Christmas, Israeli! Merry Christmas, everyone!”
Soon afterward the guests began to leave. The Israeli was the last to go.
“Thanks for a most enjoyable Christmas Eve, Mary. And thank you for introducing me to your friends. They’re an interesting group, each one different.”
“Thank you for coming. May I go to church with you tomorrow?”
“Of course. I was hoping you would.”
“I’ll stop at your house about ten-thirty.”
“Fine. Good night, Mary.”
He walked through the snow—by now almost to his knees—to the house where he was staying. Because most of the sidewalks were not yet shoveled, he walked in the street, where cars had smoothed some narrow tracks. In his room he undressed, then stood by the window for a moment, shivering in the darkness, looking at the silent snow. He prayed, “Father, I thank You that You hear me. I thank You that things shall not always be as they were that night and as they are this night. Cover earth with righteousness and justice and love as snow covers all things tonight.”
The blinding sunlight of Christmas morning awoke him, reflecting whiteness all around. From his airline bag he removed an orange, which he peeled and ate.
Just before ten-thirty,Mary came.The green Vega was filled with people who had been at her apartment the previous evening—all except one couple, who rode a motorcycle behind Mary’s car. A snowplow had partially cleared the street.
“Merry Christmas, Israeli!” they all shouted as he came out of the house.
He smiled—a pleased, happy smile. “Thank you, friends. And Merry Christmas to all of you. I’m surprised to see you, but I’m glad you’re going to the service with Mary and me.”
“Mary didn’t twist our arms, either,” one said. “Yesterday she’d have had to, and we still wouldn’t have gone. The fact is, she wouldn’t have gone herself, before yesterday. But now we’ve met you ourselves, and we know you, so we want to go.”
At the church, which was already almost full, an usher led them up to a partially empty pew at the very front. They were an odd assortment: miniskirted, leather coated, long haired, one bearded, two black, and the rest white. And the Israeli, who sat between Mary and a young black man.
The service began with the doxology and Apostles’ Creed. Carols sung by the congregation, “O Holy Night” by the combined choirs, the Christmas story from Luke’s Gospel followed. Next the offering. While the ushers were taking it, and the organ was playing, the pastor looked thoughtfully down at the front pew, at the Israeli and the group of young men and women around him.
After the offering, the children’s choir sang “Silent Night.”
The sermon followed. It was a carefully prepared, almost exhaustive survey of the Old Testament prophetic passages that predicted Christ’s advent. A prayer, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and the benediction ended the service.
Mary’s little group of friends surrounded the Israeli as they walked behind the slow-moving group out the center aisle. The young black man turned to him. “Sir, could I talk to you before you leave town? Mary says you’re heading back down today.”
“Of course.We’ll find a quiet place.”
At the door, the pastor smiled as he shook their hands. “I hope you all felt welcome among us. And you, my friend,” taking the Israeli’s hand, “I’m sorry there just wasn’t time in the service for a word from you. But Christmas morning, you know—people are so anxious for the service to end promptly at twelve so they can get home to their family celebrations. I hope you understand.”
“I do,” said the Israeli.
Mary spoke to the pastor. “You missed something. We know, because we’ve been listening to him.”
“Well, Merry Christmas,” said the pastor, turning from them to greet the last ones to leave.
They went back to Mary’s apartment for a bacon-and-eggs lunch. They talked all afternoon.
Around five o’clock Mary drove the Israeli to O’Hare airport. Everybody went. This time the motorcycle, with its two riders, led the way.
He left for Israel on TWA flight 802.