“Like a son of the gods”
Our family gathered in Mobile for Christmas Eve. It was a joyous occasion as we celebrated the Nativity for the first-time with our nine-month-old grandson.
Nora and I were there along with son Chris (who had the day before celebrated his 32nd birthday), daughter Leigh, son-in-law Fred, and grandson Wilt. The weather was perfect for a southern Christmas – a chill in the air with a starry night. It was a good night to be in warm homes, gathered with family, preparing to share presents.
The family gathered fully for the first time on this holiday at the Christmas Eve service at Christ Church Cathedral. The musical prelude was beautiful. It set the tone for the service so well. The church was full as families came together in reserved pews for the sacred beginning of the observance of Christmas. The Bishop celebrated and the Dean preached. Hers was a moving sermon, recalling the example of Phillips Brooks, one-time rector of Trinity Church, Copley Square, in Boston, and lyricist of the hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
There was a sense of warmth present – a feeling that, for that brief moment, all was right with the world. The Savior had come. A child had been born. Emmanuel. God with us. The ground of our being had become one with us in human form. From him we have all received grace upon grace.
We departed the peace and majesty of that service in the cold, dark night. Our children and grandson went in one car. Nora and I left in our car. We began the three-mile drive back to our daughter’s home in Midtown Mobile.
As we drove west on Government Street, I looked for a place to purchase gas for my car. Nora and I had a 65 mile drive to Fort Morgan later that night, and I needed gas to make the drive.
We were perhaps half-way down Government Street when I saw an Exxon station lighted and open. I pulled in to the station and up to a vacant pump. The manager of the station was hosing down the concrete premises. The station appeared largely vacant, other than him.
As I got out of my car to pump the gas, I saw an older African American man walking across the station’s concrete apron. He was talking to the station manager as he walked, and was carrying two plastic grocery store bags, one in each hand. He was bundled against the night’s cold. His sparse beard was flecked with grey. His wool hat was pulled over his hair. A few of his stained teeth were missing. He walked toward me.
I was dressed in my typical “civilian” church clothes: navy blue blazer, blue-and-white tape-stripe shirt, faintly-patterned grey-checkered slacks, and my comfortable brown oxford shoes. I did not wear a tie. I was “Mr. Middle Class”.
As he walked toward me, I thought of the four $20 bills folded neatly in my pocket. I wondered what he would ask, and I thought about what I would give. “After all, it is Christmas Eve,” I thought to myself.
He walked to within about eight feet of me. “Ain’t it wonderful?” he said. “The girl was nearly burned to death 30 years ago.” He was clearly clued into a story I did not know.
“Yes, that’s right. She nearly burned to death. And now she is a young woman! Isn’t that wonderful? God is good!”
Surprised and puzzled, I responded: “Yes, that is good.”
He continued, a smile on his weathered face: “And you know what? Have you ever seen the story in the Bible? The one about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego?”
“Yes, I know that one,” I replied. “The one about the fiery furnace.”
“That’s right,” he said. “They were in the fire and they saw a fourth man in there..”
“Like a son of God,” I completed his sentence.
“That’s right,” he said. “There was a fourth person with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. One like God. Isn’t that great? That’s what happened to that girl. God was with her. And now she’s a grown woman.”
“That’s a wonderful story,” I said.
“Have a merry Christmas,” he said, as he walked away into the night.
“And you, too,” I responded.
He had asked for nothing. And he gave me so much.
I finished filling my car. I put the nozzle back in its place, replaced the gas cap, and closed the cover.
I looked around in the night. There was Nora, me, and the station manager. The three of us. And the mysterious, grateful man who had walked into the night, “one like a son of the gods.”