My first twenty-three Christmases were spent in my home in New Zealand where it was the middle of summer. In 1964 I sailed to England to study Theology at the University of Durham. For the first time I was feeling homesick and lonely. My first Christmas away from home and family was to be spent with a fellow seminarian who had invited to join his family. They lived on the west side of England in the city of Carlisle, at the edge of the Lake District. I decided I wanted to walk/ hitch-hike over the Pennines, the hills that form the backbone of England, to reach my destination. Public footpaths abounded, the scenery would be magnificent, and after being stuck in my college room for three months I thought it would be invigorating to stride across the moors.
On Christmas Eve friends dropped me off outside of Durham and I set out for Carlisle. It was cold, and there was some snow on the ground. I tuned my transistor radio to the Service of Lessons and Carols being broadcast live from King’s College, Cambridge. My journey was quite a setting for the story of Christmas told in Scripture and song as I trudged over the Pennines on that clear winter afternoon. I was alone, and yet accompanied by the peace that comes from knowing that the Lord who came so long ago had brought me to this place, on the other side of the world, at this time in my life.
My mind and imagination had been fed by the literature and history of Britain. The poems of William Wordsworth gave me a sense of the brooding presence that inhabited these hills and moors. He wrote in “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”:
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air’
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
What Wordsworth deeply felt and so beautifully expressed I was privileged to experience as I journeyed to spend that Christmas in Carlisle. The presence of the one whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, and the round ocean, and the living air, and the blue sky, and in the mind of man had brought me to this place at this time in my life, to learn of Him and His ways. What would I learn? What would become of me? Alone on the moors that Christmas Eve the one who is a motion and spirit, that impels all thinking things, all objects of all thoughts, and rolls through all things, was moving me along.
Darkness fell early that Christmas Eve and I was still a long way from my destination. I had to resort to hitching a ride the rest of the way. My host picked me up on the outskirts of town and carried me off to his home. His name was Nick Carr. He was 46 years old and had several children. He was raised to succeed his father in the famous family biscuit business, Carr’s of Carlisle, whose products adorn the shelves of most supermarkets today. But Nick, like me, had encountered the presence that disturbed us with too much joy to keep to ourselves. He, like me, had parents who thought he had lost his mind, when he was called into the ordained ministry of the Church. What is the Church compared to a successful family business, and you the only son to carry it on? But no business, and no parents has the power to resist that call of the one who rolls though all things.
Nick, like his namesake, St. Nicholas, was a jolly elf of a man. He was irrepressible, full of practical jokes, laughter and wisecracks. He positively exuded Christmas cheer. Incredible though it may seem, his wife’s name was Joy. The combination of these two saints, Nick and Joy, was more than anyone could hope for at Christmastide. With their family around them, they reigned over a memorable Christmas.
The house in which they lived was baronial in size and made of stone. It has one drawback. In the cold English winter, it did not possess central heating. Small electric bar heaters were available take the nip out of the frosty air. To get to sleep required taking a hot bath and diving into the bed which had been warmed by a hot water bottle.
Christmas morning arrived. Two cars took us to church. We learned, once again, that the presence has a name, Jesus. God with us. Immanuel. He brought us together, from one side of the world to another, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all people.” God’s gift is that we are not alone. We have his saving grace in the person of Jesus who redeems us from a life that could be wasted, to a life that is eager to do good.
St. Nick and his family embodied that grace. At the end of the journey I found a home and a family that loved me, and found room for me. They too had experienced the grace of God in Jesus. It had changed their lives. What joy they had encountered was to be passed on. They passed it on to me that Christmas.
All of us at time find ourselves alone, on the moors of life, trudging over the difficult hills, far from our heavenly home. Yet our minds and imaginations are fed each Christmas by the story of God with us, the presence that disturbs or surprises us with joy unspeakable and full of glory.
In the church we come home to a family who loves us and bids us good cheer. We come and eat at his Table and hear the voice of the angels. It is no accident that we find ourselves there. The Lord brings us together through his crib and his cross. He brings you and me together at his table. This is the foretaste of that heavenly banquet when we finally reach our journey’s end in the kingdom of heaven. There we will no longer be homesick and lonely because we will truly be home with the One who loves us. For God is Love.