She couldn’t have been much older than my own children and we exchanged smiles as Brian and I moved into the row next to her. She didn’t sing during worship, but not everyone does. She shook my hand when we exchanged “Merry Christmas” greetings with our neighbors.
The pastor started his sermon, “Christmas! The most wonderful time of the year… except when it isn’t” and she started to cry. Things weren’t wonderful for this young woman.
There was an empty seat between us but it suddenly felt like a gulf. I noticed that she wiped her eyes with her fingertips. I heard her sniff. A moment later she wiped her cheek with her hand. Then, continuing to sniff, she wiped the tears off her jaw.
Trying to show compassion and understanding as a mother would, I turned toward her and tried to smile. She was red-faced and it was clear she was swallowing back sobs. I fished through my purse for tissues; I gave her some and kept one. I started to cry for her.
It was almost impossible to focus on the sermon as I wondered what made this precious, beautiful young woman so sad at Christmastime – the happiest season of all. Had she lost a parent? A sibling? A child? A boyfriend? A job? Her hopes and dreams? Was she alone in a new city? Was she simply alone? Had she just received a serious health diagnosis? Was she overwhelmed with guilt? Shame? Fear?
At some point, I thought I should touch her hand, but we live in a culture where personal boundaries shouldn’t be breached. She was a total stranger. We were visiting this church. Our paths might never cross again. I decided that none of that mattered and I reached over and patted her hand for a moment.
For twenty minutes we sat two feet apart, both of us crying. I wanted to help her. I didn’t know how. Then it was time for communion.
The tray came from her side of the row. She held the tray for the person on her right to take the bread and the cup. She handed the tray to me. I held it for her to take the elements. She shook her head, her lips were pursed and the tears poured down her cheeks. I could almost see her melting into her chair.
I passed the tray to Brian and he held it for me. I took the bread and the cup and thanked Jesus for what He had done to save me. He gave His life to spare me from the overwhelming agony of guilt and shame. He became sin for me so that I might become the righteousness of God. He died so that I might live. He defeated death so that I would never have to experience it. He died for this young woman, too. I prayed for her. I ate the bread I drank the cup. I reached over and squeezed her arm.
We stood and sang a song about Emmanuel – God with us. The worship pastor prayed and told us there were people up front if we wanted prayer. I looked at Brian, and back at the young woman. I held my arms out to her and she came into my embrace. Two strangers. We hugged and we cried, and neither let go.
As we hugged I prayed, “God, what can I say to comfort this young woman? What should I say to her?” The only thing that came to mind was to whisper in her ear, “You are loved! You must know you are loved!” I loved her, I still do! And Jesus loved her. He still does. He died, and He lives, for her!
I kissed her hair and after another couple of seconds, she let go. She turned and started gathering her things. Brian and I started to walk out of the row. I wanted to do more. I wanted to say more. I silently prayed, “Oh, God, please draw her to the front for prayer.” She turned toward the front.
Why would she come to church, alone, in such great pain, at Christmastime? Because somehow she knew that church is not just for the well-put-together crowd. Church is the hospital where hurting people go for help. Where else could she go? To whom else could she turn?
“Then Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked, ‘Are you also going to leave?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life. We believe, and we know you are the Holy One of God.’” – John 6:67-69 NLT
Christmas! The most wonderful time of the year! Why? Because it is on Christmas that we celebrate the incarnation, the embodiment of God in the human form of Jesus. It is at Christmas that we celebrate the defeat of sin and death. It is at Christmas that we celebrate Emmanuel – God with us. Always.
“And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:20 NLT
Is there someone you know who needs to hear the promise that he or she is loved, that Jesus is the One to whom he should turn, and that Jesus will be with her to the end of the age? Will you share the gift of Jesus?
Brian and I kept looking back, but we lost sight of her. I trust she went forward for prayer. I trust God met her in her hour of need on Sunday.