I learned a long time ago that Christmas Eve is filled with surprises. You never know what little unexpected thing will happen or what unannounced visit will take place. This year it happened early. When I arrived at church in the mid-afternoon to prepare for our four candlelight services I was greeted at the door by a man with a TV news camera in one hand and a microphone in the other. He was from the local ABC News affiliate. He was there to ask me to comment on a local spiritual phenomenon. Turns out that a man in town was making for himself a tie dye shirt and what should come out of the wash, but an image of the Virgin Mary! At least that's what he was making it out to be, along with a bunch of other people. Could it be? Could the Holy Mother be taking the time to visit a Florida man on Christmas Eve? The newsman wanted my opinion.
It had to have been a slow news day.
Truth be told, I had been tipped off by our administrative staff that this reporter would be waiting for me. So I had a little time to think about what I might say. What's a Presbyterian pastor to make of an appearance of the Blessed Virgin on a tie dye shirt? I resisted the temptation to pass the buck to my colleagues across the street at the Catholic church and instead took a crack: "Who am I to invalidate the appearance?" I said. "I learned long ago not to pass hasty judgment on anyone's spiritual experience." Of course every ounce of me wanted to say the whole claim was hogwash. Talk about a Rorschach moment gone bad! In my mind I scoffed just as I would have scoffed at Mary's story of the angel and the shepherds' story of the angel and Joseph's story of the angel. Those things don't happen that way, my 21st century mind was eager to shout. But, of course, that was exactly what I was preparing to tell 3000 people over the course of the next 8 hours -- that they do!! Am I speaking out of both sides of my mouth?
Then came the epiphany.
The gospel preached on Christmas Eve is not just a story of appearances, it's a story also of responses. Every Christmas character has a response to the most unusual sightings. Mary ponders these things in her heart. The shepherds return glorifying and praising God. The wise men go home by another way. Something strange has happened and you can see it in the behavior of the witnesses. Their lives look a little different as a result. For my tie dye friend the validation won't come from what folks see in the design, but from what they see in the man.
It's the way it's always been. Christmas takes on believability not from the familiar carol tunes and pretty crèches, but in the behavior of those who've been to the manger.
The Gregorian calendar does us a great favor when in just a week after visiting Bethlehem we are launched into a new year. It's the time to start down a different path. It will be our response more than our claim that will help folks to see that Christmas is more than just coincidental tie dye.