He heaved on his boots and opened the door. The air was cold outside and flowed over his face with icy contempt. ‘How many more times?’ he thought. ‘How many times had it been so far? More than he could tell’. And it was always the same. They said, ‘You’ll be there first won’t you? So can you do what is necessary? We’ll be along later. You don’t mind do you?’ Would it matter if I did he would wonder. But he didn’t really mind. It was just what had come to be expected. It was part of his work.
But tonight the air seemed colder, the boots heavier and his bag cut into his shoulder.
He closed the gate and turned down the hill until he came to the High Street. There was no one in sight. This was the part he really liked. The cars were parked, already catching their first sheen of frost. There was light everywhere. The shop lights shone out across the street; the council lights had already been shut down. Austerity bah!. Christmas trees lights still twinkled on the sides of the houses. He could take his time. He would not meet anyone.
He walked slowly, sometimes stopping to gaze into the shops. Some still advertised their seasonal wares but now they seemed past it, rather forlorn – no more shopping days till Xmas. Some had got their New Year’s bargains in place, already reaching out with the fiendish grip of commercial entrapment.
As he walked on he could hear the sound of laughter from inside the cottages. They were only a brick depth away from the pavement. Some had left their curtains drawn and he could look in on festive lamps and parcels ready for the morning. He did not stop. He felt like a stranger invited to gaze in but not enter.
He shook himself. This was no way to do his job on Christmas Eve. ‘Get a grip man; you know you are always like this. Stop feeling sorry for yourself’.
He left the street behind and began to climb the lane toward the church. It stood solid and still. Its light toned stone reflected the moonlight that had suddenly appeared. ‘This will get them out – it all looks just like the Xmas cards they send each other. All we need now is light snow; not too much or it will lie’. He chided his bleak and frosty cynicism.
He turned the key of the lock and the heavy door swung open. A solitary candle was alight on the table. Slowly with care and unhurried mind now, he began the preparation.
The gentle moving of cloth and plate, cup and book; familiar gestures of age-old reverence stilled his mind and let in his faith. When all was done at the table he turned toward the still empty church.
‘We’ll be along later. You don’t mind do you?’
But he knew he was not alone. He never had been. There were no empty seats in the church. They awaited their customers. But beyond the gaze of human eye maybe in the light-shaped shadows of the old building there was a great company of previous occupants.
The few that night would worship among a numberless company called by the Grace of God, who had plodded along the same High Street and climbed the same lane on a journey begun many miles and years before on a track to a city of David.
And for a brief moment the tired minister with numb feet, aching shoulders and lonely faith could look out over the still sanctuary and see faces, real faces. The faces of those he had known there and beyond the tiny village who had walked with him and kept the Faith down through the years.
He had not walked alone on Christmas Eve.