The moment is etched in my memory forever. It was the week before Christmas. Our first Christmas in Wisconsin. It was bitterly cold. A piercing wind cut through my layers of thermal clothing. And all the way into my heart.
Everything about me felt cold. We had moved from a place where we had lived many years, surrounded by multiple circles of friends and family, enveloped in warm memories and fireside moments. And this new place felt cold. Very very cold.
I was making my way across a supermarket parking lot, pushing a very heavy basket. Here was the good part: We were preparing for a visit from all of our children that Christmas, so my basket was loaded with the promise of good times, warm moments around the fire. But the moments would be fleeting. The kids would leave, and it would be cold and lonely again. Against my best judgment, self-pity was slouching its way into my soul.
Then I saw her. Creeping along next to me, hunched over her basket filled with only one lonely bag of groceries, was a woman who reminded me of long-ago pictures of my German immigrant grandmother. She wore a babushka over her wrinkled head, her claw-like fingers were crippled with arthritis, and she leaned heavily into her cart for support. She wore an old cloth coat so thin I could almost see through it.
Seeing her, I paused. Was there some way I could help her? Offer to push her basket to her car (Did she really drive? I didn’t see anyone with her, and the old car to which she seemed to be headed was empty.) so her progress across the lot would be less snail-like? But my cart was so loaded, so heavy, that I was afraid it could lunge into another car if I let go of it. I was moving slowly enough with the weight of it.
Then she saw me. Before I could make a move, she slowly, painfully approached me. “Ah, ah…such heavy burdens you have. Your load is heavy. I wish I could help you.”
I was stunned into silence. Before I could move or speak, she was gone. It seemed as if she vaporized. Probably she made her way to her car while I stood there frozen in shock. Probably. I’m just not sure.
I never saw her again. In fact, I never saw anyone who looked like her in the rest of our years in that town. I have no idea who she was.
But I thought of her again this week. I was re-reading parts of a favorite book: Somewhere More Holy, by Tony Woodlief. The author, who has described the shattering tragedy of losing a young daughter, is reflecting on the Incarnation, “the coming of God to live with us as a man, shouldering our burdens, enduring with us our trials.” And he asks the question: “Have you ever tried to carry a heavy burden, felt its weight on your shoulder or against your leg, and then suddenly felt it lighten as a friend arrived to help you with it? This is Christmas to us.” (p. 50)
Indeed. This is Christmas. This, and so much more. A God Who came to “live in the neighborhood” for a time. A God who calls us to bring our heavy burdens to Him. A God who shows up in the most unlikely ways and places.
Be watchful this Christmas.