"Dawn is Breaking"
- Christmas Eve -
For most of my life I have observed an Old-World Polish Christmas tradition by gathering around a table with family and friends and sharing a festive meal on Christmas Eve. There are several traditions observed as part of this ritualized meal - for one thing, all the specialized foods are meatless (a vegetarian's delight), a candle is set in the window and a place is always set at the table which intentionally remains empty, open invitations for the "Christ about to born" to come to the house with a candle in the window and sit at a place at the table that awaits his presence.
Many years ago I was a Chaplain at Syracuse University. It was just a few days before Christmas when we got the news that Pan Am flight 103 had gone down over Lockerbie Scotland- the victim of a terrorist bomb. Suddenly the whole world seemed to stop for all of us on that campus because 35 of our Syracuse students studying abroad went down with that plane. It was probably the greatest tragedy I have ever had to deal with in my life - such profound sadness over the senseless loss of so many young "kids" who just weren't supposed to die when they were 20 years old.
A few days after the crash, it was Christmas - and it goes without saying that none of us were in much of a festive mood. In fact, I wished I could have just turned the clocks ahead- make Christmas go away. But it didn't go away, and when Christmas Eve finally arrived I found myself sitting at a table along with my family and some other chaplains who we had invited to join us to share our traditional Christmas Eve "Vigil" meal with its celebratory meatless foods, a candle in the window and an empty place set at the table.
As we sat at the table, our spirits were grim - all of us still in great pain over the profound loss that had permeated the campus, when suddenly and unexpectedly the doorbell rang. Since I was a chaplain, I would often host parties and dinners for students at our home. On that Christmas Eve when the bell rang, it was a student who stood at the door. He was unable to go home for Christmas, saw that candle in the window, guessed we were having some sort of Christmas gathering, and so he rang our doorbell wondering what was up.
I immediately invited him into our house telling him that he was just in time to share a traditional Christmas Eve meal with us. Then I said "we even have a place already set for you." Yes, a place had indeed been already prepared - an open invitation for the Christ to come and sit.
I can still remember that young man sitting in that empty place at our Christmas Eve table. No one had to say anything because the symbolism was far too obvious for us all, and our grim mood quickly turned into joy. In the midst of our darkness we had set up a place of hope, believing that even in our deepest sorrow we would not be abandoned, and we weren't.
Ever since that Christmas Eve back those many years ago, I remember that student sitting in a chair reserved for the Christ about to be born. It reminds me that all of us on any sort of spiritual journey must always set an empty place in our lives - an open invitation for the Holy Presence to come and break into our lives. We walk a spiritual path with a candle in the window, awake and available to the revelations of every moment and we live with joyful hope because we know that even in the darkest night, the light is always knocking at the door.
It's Christmas Eve, a candle is lit in the window, an empty place is set at the table -such joyful hope!