It was Christmas Eve, my favorite night of the year, as we sat shoulder-to-shoulder on a rear pew in the quaint but packed country church. I had been a Christian for slightly less than ten years, but each day since that unforgettable moment in July 1974 when I had received Jesus as my Savior, I had prayed for my dad’s salvation. Dad was the last “holdout” in our family. Prior to 1969, none of us had known Jesus as Lord and Savior, but since that time we had all become Christians — except Dad. My stubborn German father, though raised by a praying mother, had rejected his childhood faith and now insisted he was an atheist.
That night my family was sure all that would change, for Dad had agreed to accompany us to the Christmas Eve service. We had been shocked but thrilled when he accepted our invitation, since we invited him to church quite often and he always refused. For the first time, on that night of all nights when the faithful gather together to commemorate the birth of God’s Son, my dad was with us.
As the service progressed, I found myself peeking out of the corner of my eye every few moments to make sure he was still there, sitting next to my mom, whose face literally shone with joy and excitement. But so far nothing was happening. Dad sat perfectly still, his big hands resting in his lap, his broad shoulders straight, his lined face expressionless. With the service about to end, I found myself fighting discouragement.
And then the lights went down and, as if on cue, the parishioners seated on the center-aisle end of the pews passed small unlit candles to everyone in their row. At the same time two ushers began to make their way down the center aisle, stopping at the end of each pew and lighting the candle of the first parishioner in each row. Those parishioners then turned and lit the candle of the next person in the row, and so on until everyone held a lit candle.
Clutching my own candle as I waited for the usher to reach our row, I glanced over at my parents and realized my ever-practical father must have decided the process was going much too slowly, for he suddenly fished his cigarette lighter out of his pocket and started lighting candles. Within minutes he had lit every candle at his end of the pew and was reaching over to the people in the pew in front of us to start on theirs.
Fighting humiliation, I closed my eyes and felt the sting of unexpected tears as I realized my dad was simply trying to be helpful. I heard a couple of chuckles in nearby rows, but no one said anything until the usher arrived at our pew. With the glow from his candle illuminating his face, the smiling man thanked my father for his assistance. Dad returned his smile and assured him he was glad to be of help, and the gracious usher moved on.
It was nearly fifteen years later before the last “holdout” in our family responded to the loving call of his heavenly Father. At eighty-eight years of age, less than one week before his death in October 1999, my sweet but stubborn German father received Jesus as his Savior — and then promptly went home to be with Him.
I have thought of that Christmas Eve so many times over the last couple of decades. With the exception of occasional weddings, funerals, or baptisms, Dad never came back to church with us after that night, though we asked him nearly every week. There were times we wondered how God would ever penetrate Dad’s seemingly hard heart with the gospel, but we clung to the knowledge that God is faithful and nothing is impossible with Him. And how we rejoiced when God finally broken through Dad’s resistance and we saw the tears of joy in his clouded eyes. Though a series of small strokes had left him bedridden and unable to speak, we were thrilled each time he grinned and lifted his finger to point heavenward at the mention of the name of Jesus. And we were so very grateful. But I have to admit that, despite my gratitude and joy, I also wondered why Dad had waited so long to receive such a truly awesome gift. As it turned out, because he died in October, he never got to experience the wonder of Christmas as a believer — or did he?
As I thought and prayed about that very issue, I realized how I had allowed myself to get locked into dates. I knew, of course, that Jesus may not have been born exactly on December 25, but I hadn’t really considered that Christmas could be celebrated at any time other than on that precise date. And yet, I reasoned, wasn’t Christmas the celebration of the birth of God’s Son into the world? What, then, had happened in October 1999 just days before my dad slipped out of his earthly body and was whisked into the presence of God? Hadn’t Jesus been birthed by God’s Spirit into Dad’s heart? If I believed that — and I certainly did — then that wonderful day of new birth for my dad, though it took place in October, had been his personal Christmas celebration here on earth.
I was thrilled — not just because of what had happened to my father, but because I suddenly realized that the day of our salvation — our new birth — is also the day of our own personal Christmas. After knowing and walking with Jesus for more than a quarter of a century, I had come into a new and fresh appreciation of the most beautiful of all holidays. In fact, I realized how much more meaningful Christmas would be if, when we get together as a family to celebrate the gift of Jesus, we also recount our own Christmas stories, telling of the day Jesus was birthed into our hearts. If we have guests who have never received Jesus, it would be the perfect opportunity for them to do so.
But we wouldn’t have to stop there. Why not have several Christmas celebrations throughout the year? Regardless of the date, each time one of us comes to the anniversary of our new birth, we could have a Christmas party in honor of the event. Guests could bring gifts, and the person celebrating his or her own personal Christmas could designate a charity to receive them. It would provide us with opportunities to invite unsaved friends, neighbors, and loved ones, and to present the gospel to them throughout the year.
I will always cherish the memory of my dear father “helping” the ushers at that Christmas Eve candlelight service so many years ago, and the opportunities that it generated to make Christmas personal all year long and to tell others about the greatest gift ever given — God’s own Son, born into a world of sin that He might also be born in our hearts and wash those sins away forever.