Christmas Eve Vigil for Children (Dec. 24, 2014)

This is a Christmas Eve reflection for children. When I was very young, back in the days when TV was in black and white, and all Dads wore hats to work, my family lived in a big city called Chicago. We lived on the second floor of a building owned by a lady called Mrs. Hewitt. Mrs. Hewitt lived all alone on the first floor. My Mom liked Mrs. Hewitt, so sometimes, when my Dad was at work, she would take me downstairs with her, to Mrs. Hewitt’s kitchen, so they could drink coffee and have a chat.

Mrs. Hewitt seemed very old. She must have been at least 40. She would meet us at her door, and lead us down a long shadowy hallway, to her brightly lit kitchen. To me, that dark hallway was the most amazing place in the world. All along one side, it had built-in cabinets with glass doors, and the cabinets were full of toy trains. There must have been a hundred different pieces: lots of shiny black steam engines of different sizes, and all kinds of passenger coaches and freight cars. Many of the pieces were still in their boxes, so you couldn’t tell exactly what they were, but that just made them seem more wonderful.

Mrs. Hewitt wouldn’t let me stop and look at the trains. She would hurry me along the corridor, and say, “There’s nothing for you to see here. Those trains belonged to my husband, God rest his soul, so they are very precious to me. You come along to the kitchen and have a glass of milk.” It was as if she was afraid I would hurt the trains, which was crazy, because I wasn’t even tall enough to reach the handles of the cabinets.

So I never got to touch the trains, but every time we went to visit Mrs. Hewitt, and we were hurrying along the shadowy hallway to the bright kitchen, I would try to hang back, and open my eyes very wide, to see as much as I could of the trains. And later, when I would think about the trains, I would get a wonderful feeling inside. I was too young to understand the feeling then, but when I look back on it, I think it was a feeling that even if the brightly lit parts of the world sometimes seemed kind of ordinary, there were delightful mysteries in the shadows. Beneath the surface of everyday life, there was wonder.

Then, one Christmas morning, I stumbled into the living room, to find, travelling around the base of the Christmas tree, on a circular track, my own train! The transformer was warm, and filled the air with a crackly, electrical kind of odor, which mingled with the pine scent of the tree, to create a wonderful smell that I will never forget.

I got down on the floor and let my head rest on the rug next to the track, so that the fallen pine needles scratched my cheek, and I could feel the vibration of the engine as the train drew close to me and swept by. And I made the wonderful discovery that my own train gave me the same feeling that Mrs. Hewitt’s trains did! From then on, when Christmas time came, my train would be unpacked, along with the Christmas decorations, and would be set running around the base of our tree.

A few years later, when I was about eight, my family had moved to a town called Kankakee, Illinois. At the end of our street there lived some children whose grandfather was a real millionaire. My father knew the children’s parents, and one day he came home from their house with a radio he had bought from them. He gave the radio to me.

It was a very powerful radio called a “Trans-Oceanic.” It looked like the kind of radio a millionaire would have. When it was closed up, it was a black leather suitcase, with a handle and everything. It had an antenna on top that telescoped out until it was taller than me. If you opened the back of the case while the radio was turned on, you could see the rows of glowing vacuum tubes that made it work. When I squinted my eyes, the tubes looked like a spaceship, or the skyline of a city at night.

When the radio was warmed-up, it hummed, and had an electric smell, something like my train, except it was combined with the smell of dust, and hot leather. When the front of the radio was open, there were lots of knobs and buttons and dials and a map of the world with wavy lines through it. And when I turned the dials I heard people speaking on the other side of the world, in strange languages. I heard Morse code, and thought of ships sending emergency messages while sinking at night in stormy seas. I thought of spies transmitting in code from somewhere in Russia. I heard weird music, and sometimes, through the static, very far away, I could hear the chimes of Big Ben.

Best of all, I liked to lie in bed at night, and listen to baseball games from all over the country. I could hear night games in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Atlanta, St. Louis and New York: places hundreds of miles from Kankakee. My Trans-Oceanic radio let me visit different worlds. It gave me once more the feeling I had first known in Mrs. Hewitt’s hallway: the feeling that if you scratch the surface of life you will find a wonderful mystery.

I hope that you will all have that feeling. You might have it when you open up a big new box of crayons, and think of all the beautiful pictures that you will draw with them. In a way, all those pictures are already in the box. Or you might have it when you open up a wonderful new book, and it makes a crackling sound, and you can feel its thickness in your hand, and you think of all the fabulous people and places you will find inside.

I don’t know what happened to Mrs. Hewitt’s trains, but the last time I saw mine they were in a water-stained cardboard box in the basement of my parents’ house. They didn’t give me the wonderful feeling any more. My Trans-Oceanic radio sat for years in the back of the big closet in my parent’s bedroom. It didn’t work anymore, and we had given up trying to find the tubes to fix it. There was no longer mystery in it for me.

You see, when you grow up, and learn all about the way the world works, things that used to show you the mystery behind the world, often lose their magic. But there is one place I can still turn to touch the mystery, and all the grown-ups you know can find it there as well. I can find the mystery in the manger, in the little child whose statue we find there. I can find the mystery on the Altar behind the manger, where our Savior is made present to us.

You see, Jesus is the mystery that we see for a moment in the wonderful things God has created and that human hands have made. He is the love at the heart of the universe, who gives meaning and beauty to our lives, no matter how grown-up we get, or how much we know.

And that is why your parents, who love you very much, bring you to church on Christmas. They want to give you the best present of all: much better than an electric train, or a short wave radio. Many years from now, when your T-Rex Robot Dinosaur, and your Disney Princess Snow Glow Elsa have been long forgotten, and your LEGOs are all packed away at the back of some closet, you will still have the gift they give you tonight: a reason for living and loving, and experience of the mystery that lies at the heart of the world.

Fr. Charles Gordon, C.S.C.

Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C., is co-director of the Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture at the University of Portland. He writes and records a regular blog called “Fractio Verbi.”

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