The Reason for the Season
“What are you looking at?” Joe asked his reflection in the water. The image of a brooding twenty-something stared up at him over the bridge rail, rippling, breaking and reforming. The water looked cold. And his reflection looked just as cold and mixed up as he felt. He wished he had a rock to throw in. He wished he had the courage to jump. One might say it took more courage not to jump and just endure, but he was not jumping mostly because that water looked icy cold. That, and he wasn’t really that miserable, was he?
He pushed back from the splintery railing and looked across the bridge both ways. Empty. Not even a vehicle. Why did he think that there would even be another pedestrian? Everyone was home or in church doing Christmas Eve stuff tonight. Even the shops were closed. Stupid little town with its little population. Stupid December.
He looked back at the rushing black water below him with the figure looking up at him. He knew he wouldn’t have the courage to climb over the rail and… then what? Let go? No, the water was cold. And you know what? He still had friends and a family. Parents who thought he would be born on Christmas so they picked out the name Joseph and went ahead and named him that when he was born weeks early. A big brother whose birthday was in May. Did it get any better than May? What was worse than a December birthday? Well, a December birthday for a young adult was worse. Too old to have a fuss made. He wasn’t a little kid anymore. Christmas would just be worse. What did it matter now?
What did anything matter? What was tomorrow, other than another cold day in a cold month in a cold year of a cold life?
Joe pulled off his coat and dropped it on the ground. But then he thought that if he did jump, then the coat would be better to have on and weigh him down.
What was he thinking? He leaned hard on the railing, looked down at the reflection and asked: “What are you thinking?”
“What are you thinking?” said a voice behind him.
Joe whirled around and there was an old man next to him. He was not much taller than Joe with a scraggly white beard. He was bundled in a long brown overcoat and an old aviator’s fur cap, complete with goggles over his forehead. He stood there looking like an old war flying ace at Joe with the kind of smile someone has when they’re about to reveal a secret.
“Wow, you scared me,” Joe said. “Where’d you come from?”
“What are you doing?” the man asked. He looked over the bridge railing as if to see if Joe was looking at something in particular. Then he nodded as if in understanding.
“No, I wasn’t going to jump,” Joe said. “I just came out here to think, okay?”
“Of course you did,” the man said. “I’m Donavan.” His voice was gravelly and careworn. He extended a gloved hand.
Joe gave it a shake. The man’s grip was like a football player’s and he almost winced.
“Sorry,” Donavan said. “It feels good to shake hands with someone.”
Joe looked him over. The man was dressed in old clothes but they looked warm. He had all his teeth and he didn’t look like the stereotypical alkies that hung around town. He still might be homeless. Might as well ask.
“Have you got a place to go tonight?” Joe asked.
“As a matter of fact I do,” Donavan said.
“I mean, like a home? Or a shelter?”
The old man nodded. “I have a place,” he said. “But right now? I’m supposed to be here, Joe.”
Joe backed up a step. “Did someone send you to look for me?” he asked. “Is that how you know my name?”
Donavan nodded. “Not who you think,” he said.
Joe stared at him. He heard the rushing water below him and felt the cold wind on his nose.
“This isn’t funny,” he finally said. “Coming out and doing something like this. Just because I’m on a bridge on Christmas Eve, you think you can come out and do a “It’s a Wonderful Life” on me or something? What, are you going to tell me that you’re an angel? Are you going to tell me that I’m going to be visited by three ghosts tonight?”
Donavan had been smiling but then frowned. “You’re mixing up your Christmas stories there, Joe,” he laughed. “The guy on the bridge was given a look at what the world would be like if he had never been born.”
“Yeah,” Joe said. He turned from the rail and stared walking. “I’m going home now. Let’s just say you saved me from jumping and I’ll be all happy and… and ‘the end’, okay?”
He took several steps and turned around. Donavan just stood and stared, not following. He smiled and raised his hand in a little wave of: yes, I’m still here. Who sent him? How did this man know his name?
“Why did you come out here?” Joe asked.
“Why did you?” Donavan asked back.
Joe was about to say how he just wanted to come out to think, but he stopped. This stranger was here, who knew if he’d see him again? So he walked back and told him how he had just had a bad month. He had graduated high school a year and a half back and was trying to figure out what to do with his life. He was still living at home. The world seemed to be just going on without him and he felt disconnected. And his birthday had been a disappointment.
“I know it’s selfish and everything,” Joe said. “But I miss being a kid and having a fuss made over me. And Christmas will be the same thing, you know? It’s just not fun anymore. I know it’s wrong to feel this way, but… I don’t know, it’s just getting me down.”
“I hear you,” Donavan said. “This time of year gets people down, Joe. It happens to a lot of us.”
Joe nodded and looked at the water below. Donavan’s reflection stood next to his. “I hate Christmas,” Joe muttered.
“So you’re the type who needs to be visited by the ghosts,” Donavan said. “To find the true meaning of Christmas.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
Joe smiled. “What are you going to do? Snap your fingers and take me into Christmas past? Donavan, I know the true meaning of Christmas.” He made finger quotes. “The ‘reason for the season’ right?”
For the first time, Donavan’s face fell. “No you don’t,” he said. Then he turned impish. “Where would you want to go if you could visit somewhere in time Joe? Christmas past?”
“Okay,” Joe said. “If you could do it, send me to December 25th, year zero.”
Donavan opened his mouth, then closed it. He grinned again. “Snap my fingers, right?” he said.
“Go for it,” Joe said. “Oh, and take me to the fields outside of Bethlehem, right? If we traveled in time but not space, you know this bridge would be gone?”
“So would the river,” Donavan said. “Get your coat.”
As soon as Joe grabbed his coat from the ground the air suddenly turned icy. The ground tilted. He fell over backward into tall grass.
Joe barked in surprise and realized that he felt terror as he scrambled to his feet. Everything was out of focus. There was a blurry moon over head. He shook his head and watched his surroundings pull into focus like adjusting a pair of binoculars.
He was standing on an empty hillside. The stars and moon lit around him enough that he could see hills and rocks. There were no buildings in sight. No sheep or shepherds either. The air was colder and dryer here, but there was a cleanness to it. And he had never seen so many stars.
A voice spoke behind him and this time he fell down.
“Stop that!” Joe shouted. But it wasn’t Donavan. This man was shorter and thinner than him, maybe about his age. He had dark whiskers, not really a beard. He wore a long robe and something like a turban on his head and he was holding what looked like a blanket. He spoke again and Joe realized it wasn’t English.
Joe got to his feet again and looked at the man. He could be a shepherd, or anyone from around here. But where was here? Had he traveled in time and space?
“I fell off the bridge didn’t I?” Joe said out loud.
The man shook his head.
“You understand me?” Joe asked stumbling forward. The ground was uneven and rough.
“I thought you would like to hear Aramaic,” the man said. “For authenticity, you know?”
“Call me Yeshua.”
“Okay, Yeshua. Where am I?”
“Right were you told Donavan to send you. These are the hills of Bethlehem. The Julian Calendar hasn’t been created yet but it’s four days after the winter solstice, two-thousand, thirteen years earlier than it was before.”
Okay, Joe thought. He had fallen off the bridge. This was a drowning hallucination. He was about to run out of oxygen and the last thing he was seeing was this. He turned to his companion.
“So where are the shepherds?” he asked. “Is the angel about to appear?”
“No,” Yeshua said. “It’s winter. The sheep are kept in barns when it’s this cold.”
“What about the angel?” Joe said. “So wait, did that not really happen?”
He saw Yeshua smile in the moonlight. “It happened right here, Joe. Three summers ago. This hillside lit up like it was daytime. Shepherds heard the message of the angels and went to Bethlehem and saw the child they had been told about. But it didn’t happen on this day, this year.”
The man pointed off toward the hills. “He’s got the same name as me,” he said. “It’s not an uncommon name. The family stayed there until just a short time ago. Now he’s in Egypt.”
Joe nodded and felt the cold go through his jacket. “Why did you bring me here then?”
“Besides it’s what you asked?” Yeshua said. “You need to know the reason for the season. Let’s start by erasing some things. There are a lot of legends surrounding the story of our Savior’s birth. This would be December 25th, year zero. But it’s not his birthday. And it’s still early in the story. The Good News has barely started to spread.”
It was very quiet then. Even the wind blew almost silently. Joe looked at the hills in the clean white moonlight and tried to imagine sheep and shepherds. Was this really the place? Yeshua sighed and lifted his arms. He let go of the blanket and it drifted to the ground.
“Here is where the news was first told. Tidings of great joy. Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth Peace. Goodwill to all men.”
He lowered his hands and picked up the blanket.
“That’s what Christmas is all about, Joe,” he said.
Joe felt laughter bubbling up inside him. What kind of dying vision was this?
Yeshua held up his hand. “But,” he said. “It’s not the reason for the season.”
“Jesus is the reason for the season,” Joe said.
“That sure sounds right. But no.”
Joe stood and looked at the night sky. Whatever was happening, it seemed real. And he would just let it happen. It was better than standing on a bridge looking at his reflection. He felt like walking to Bethlehem. But the ground was difficult to walk on. He wasn’t dressed right and he didn’t speak the language. Plus it was colder than he had ever remembered feeling. And he knew there was more he wanted to see.
“Can we go now?” he asked.
Yeshua smiled. “To Christmas present?”
Joe nodded. “Sure,” he said. “Take me to the present, and show me what there is there.”
“Someone else will be there to meet you,” Yeshua said.
“Right,” Joe said. “The ghost of Christmas Present. Well let’s go.”
He stumbled and fell again. The ground under him was flat and level and hard like cement. Light was all around him, out of focus and swimming again.
Then he heard noise. There was a dull turmoil of voices, music and commotion. The smells of people hit him next. He had only been on the clear hillside for a short while, but now the odors were overwhelming. His vision focused. It was a shopping mall. Decorations and lights were everywhere. People seemed to move around and past him, paying no heed to a young man crumpled on the floor. He wondered if they could even see him.
A big beaming man moved through the crowd. He had on a powder blue suit and tie. His hair was a styled blond mop and he was carrying what looked like a Bible.
“Praise the Lord, I say yes!” he trumpeted. His “yes” came out in more than one syllable like a TV preacher. In fact, everything about this man said TV preacher. He stopped at Joe and reached his hand down.
“Merry Christmas my brother!” he shouted. “Hallelujah!”
Joe let the man help him up. No-one else seemed to see him.
“Are you my…”
“I truly am your ghost of Christmas present, praise the Lord,” the man said. “Brother Jed Rich at your service.”
Joe sighed. His mind must be fading fast to cook up an image like this.
“And you’re Joe,” Brother Jed went on. “Hallelujah, it’s good to meet you. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” Joe mumbled. He looked around at burdened shoppers rushing past. Children of all ages and all moods were everywhere. Kids were singing and dancing alongside parents, others were wailing and being dragged. Some moody looking teens stood outside a music store and surveyed the scene with dramatic contempt.
“The mall, huh?” he asked. “I’m supposed to find the true meaning of Christmas here?”
Brother Jed leaned back and smiled even wider. “What do you see?” he asked.
“I see the season at its worst,” Joe said. “Sure people are happy, some of them at least. But look at the commercialism. This is totally what Christmas is not about.”
Brother Jed took Joe by the arm and they started to walk. He pointed into shops where clerks looked exhausted. Lines extended out into walkways. A family went by with the mom holding a crying baby and pushing a stroller full of packages.
“Commerce,” Brother Jed said. “Christmas creates a large percentage of business revenue for the whole year. Without the holiday season, merchants couldn’t pay their workers. The economy would collapse.”
Joe walked along and waited for Brother Jed to go on. Any time now, he ought to explain his point. Christmas was not about commerce. But Brother Jed just kept walking.
Finally Joe stopped. “There’s no sign of anything Christmas here,” he told Jed. “All the signs say ‘happy holidays’ or ‘season’s greetings’. The music is secular. There are no decorations with anything about the real meaning of Christmas.”
“Come along over here Joe,” Brother Jed said. “I want to show you something.”
They walked up to a coffee shop and Brother Jed pointed to a window display then went into the shop. Joe looked in the window and saw a nativity.
Well that’s nice, Joe thought. Except wait, is that Santa Claus?
The nativity set in the window had painted plastic figurines. There was Mary and Joseph, animals, Shepherds and Wise Men. And by the manger with the Baby Jesus, there was a kneeling figure of Santa Claus, bowing in reverence.
Brother Jed walked out of the store with two coffees and his Bible tucked under his arm. He chuckled.
“I’m not sure I know what to think about that,” Joe said. “I don’t know if it makes sense.”
Brother Jed handed Joe a coffee. “It will make sense,” he said and sipped at his own cup.
“How did you get these?” Joe asked.
“That’s not important Joe. Look around. Tell me what you see.”
“Santa Claus at a manger. And look, someone also put in a robot figurine too.”
Brother Jed turned and looked at the display. He pointed and laughed. “It’s him,” he said. “Now turn around Joe. What do you see out there.”
Joe turned and looked at the mall.
“A bunch of people running around, buying stuff.”
“Me too. Is this Christmas to you?”
“No,” Joe said.
Brother Jed took a long drink. Finally he lowered his cup and kept his eyes on Joe. “Really?” he said. “If you saw a picture of that, you would title it: ‘A mall at Christmastime’, right?”
Joe nodded. “Yeah,” he admitted. “This is what Christmas has become.”
“Exactly!” Brother Jed exclaimed. “Hallelujah! This is what men have created Joe. This is two-thousand, some-odd years from the night where nothing happened on that hillside in Bethlehem, don’t you see? Let them celebrate and spend money and do what they want to the holiday. Do you know what Joe?”
“Praise Jesus!” Brother Jed thrust his arms in the air and coffee splashed on the window behind him. “This isn’t what our Lord created, Brother. It’s a creation of mankind. But no matter what idols they raise up, hallelujah, they can’t ever lose the reason for the season! It’s all around us! It’s everywhere!”
Joe took a drink of his coffee. It was perfect. The shoppers around him had not seen Brother Jed’s shouting. He didn’t even get it himself. The mall had seemed so frantic and miserable. But now, he didn’t know. Brother Jed’s outpouring of joy had made everyone look just a little less depressing.
“Thanks for the coffee,” he said.
“My pleasure brother,” Jed said. “Now where are we off to now?”
“I don’t know. The future? Christmas to come?”
“Why not?” said Jed. He glanced at the nativity behind him, then back to Joe. “Hang on to that coffee, I’ll just snap my fingers, right?”
“Yeah,” Joe said. “I guess this is goodbye. I’ll have another ghost to show me around the next place?”
“That’s right,” Jed said. “It’s been a pleasure.”
“For me too,” said Joe, surprised to realize he meant it. “I didn’t expect someone like you here.”
“Wait until you meet your next host, or ghost,” said Jed. And he burst out laughing.
Joe gripped his coffee with both hands. If he fell again he wanted to be ready. The mall went out of focus, and he began to sense he was outdoors. Things were flying around.
End of part I