by Robert Dellinger
I was leaving the food court at the mall when I saw him. I had gulped down some Chinese and a soda in order to revive myself. The nephews and nieces were done, but I still had to find presents for my wife and mother. I glanced down at my watch, then looked up to pick out an opening in the crowd, and there he stood.
I could tell he wasn’t a local. His clothes were different – out of style in a way that was more than just old-fashioned. He had the weary look of a long-distance traveler, yet he carried himself in a noble way. In fact, he stood out among the swarming shoppers like an imposing lighthouse in a surging sea. I found myself drifting towards him like a boat seeking a safe harbor.
“Are you lost?” I asked him.
“No, I’m not lost,” he answered, “but I am searching.”
As he spoke he turned his head from side to side, the bottom of his long beard following a beat behind, as he scanned the stores and people below him.
“Are you looking for someone?”
“No, I’m alone, very much alone.”
“Then what are you trying to find?” I asked.
“I’ve come from far away,” he said, still searching.
“I can see that. Your clothes look like you’ve been through a desert. Could I help you find a place to stay?”
“No, I cannot stay. I cannot rest. I must keep looking until I find it.”
“But what … is … it?” I almost shouted.
He showed no irritation, but slowly and calmly bent down to me and whispered, “the wisdom of Christmas.”
Years have passed since I met the traveler, but whenever I remember our encounter I still hear the music in those words. I knew immediately, out of some deep place in my heart, the reality and the difficulty of his search. If he were only looking for the foolishness of Christmas! Then his search would be easy and his travel short. There were many examples of that undesirable prize all around us. But to find the wisdom of Christmas… Now I knew why he had traveled so far.
“I need to rest,” he said. “Sit with me.”
We found an empty bench and I heard him sigh as he eased himself onto it.
“Are you sure the wisdom of Christmas still exists?” I asked him.
“Yes, it exists. I’ve seen it. Like any great skill, once you’ve seen it in action you can’t forget it.”
“Like watching Michael Jordan play basketball,” I told him.
“Something like that, but wisdom is skill in living.”
“Then give me an example,” I said.
“As you wish. Picture a man or woman who gives generously, desiring nothing in return. Content with what they have. Not worried about how their gift will be received. Seeking only to please another. Generosity fills the wise heart of Christmas.”
“Like the couple in O’Henry’s The Gift of the Magi.”
“Exactly,” he replied. “Now think of the home where such a man or woman lives. It’s a simple home, but filled with love. These are not famous people, and no celebrities come through their doors, but their home is open and many people who need help and comfort find their way there, some poor and some not so poor.”
“Jesus came as a poor unknown,” I said to myself as much as anyone. Then I asked, “Is it wrong to celebrate at Christmas?”
“Celebrating can be very wise,” he said with a smile. “We celebrate what we want to keep alive. But what do these activities all around us seek to preserve? By their own words they show they only want to celebrate a Happy Holiday, not Christmas.”
“And they want to preserve their profits,” I added.
“Don’t be too cynical,” he cautioned. “Profit is not wrong or unwise, but it is a foolish man who only sees Christmas as a tool to gain his desires.”
I watched the crowds grow thicker and more frantic, and suddenly I felt very tired.
“It’s impossible,” I told him. “We’re too far gone. You’re not going to find your wisdom, are you?”
And then he laughed, and as he laughed the sound grew louder and echoed through the mall. I heard children in the laughter, and bells, and a rustling like branches, or wings.
“You give up too easily,” he said, still laughing.
“But look how far you’ve traveled, and you’re still looking. What hope do you have?”
“All hope, because I do not hope in man, but what goes beyond man.”
“Are you talking about magic?”
“Certainly not,” he scolded. “Magic is only an illusion. And I’m not talking about the spirit of man, either. There are moments when our natures rise up towards greatness, but even at our best we are finite, limited, and temporary. No, I’m talking about the reality that goes unseen by most men, the greatest truth and the deepest wisdom of Christmas. Can you see it?”
Before I could answer, I heard a little girl crying and saw her crawl up into the bearded man’s lap. He showed no surprise at her sudden appearance, but comforted her and asked what was wrong.
“I can’t find my mommy and daddy,” she cried.
“Well, don’t worry, my little one. We’ll find them. What’s your name?”
“Grace,” she told him.
“A beautiful name for a beautiful girl. Now, Grace, let’s find your mommy and daddy.”
And immediately he stood, holding Grace in his arms, and carefully raised her to his shoulder. There she perched on the lighthouse as he slowly turned like a beacon tracing the horizon.
“I see them!” she shouted, pointing to her parents as they returned her shouts and raced towards the dusty traveler and his tiny companion.
After many thanks and hugs the grateful parents left with Grace, and I was left alone with the stranger.
“I think I know the answer,” I told him.
“Good,” he replied.
“The greatest truth, the deepest wisdom of Christmas, is how God reached down into space and time to save us when we were lost and helpless.”
“Of course,” he smiled.
“And that’s why we celebrate, and why our hearts fill with generosity, and why we pay just as much attention to the poor and needy as we do to the high and mighty.”
He squeezed my shoulders and paused before speaking. “You’ve made me a happy man, my son. I can go home now.”
“But what about your search for wisdom?”
“I found it,” he answered as he turned and headed towards the exit. “It’s in you. From one wise man to another, have a Merry Christmas!”
Copyright by Robert Dellinger