Christmas in Nice,France
World War II)
My favorite Christmas story of the difference an
extraordinary spirit can make, is a story told by an American who years ago was traveling in France with his wife and three
young sons in a rented car, which broke down. The hotels were “tourist traps” in this particular town and the
family was increasingly irritable. Finally, on Christmas Eve, the family checked into a dingy hotel in Nice, all the better
hotels being filled. It was raining and cold when they went up the street to a drab little joint to have dinner. Only five
of the tables were occupied, and the place had a depressing atmosphere, but the father was too tired and miserable to go any
His wife ordered the meal in French, and what came
back was something she hadn’t ordered and they didn’t want. So he proceeded to needle her about her French. But
the boys defended her and left him feeling
rejected. A French couple with several children was sitting at the next table.
The father slapped one child for some minor infraction, and the child wept. On the other side was a German couple engaged
in a bitching
contest. The only happy-seeming person in the restaurant was an American sailor
at a table by himself. He was writing a letter as he ate his simple meal, and he had a half-smile on his face.
The front door opened, letting in a gust of cold
air, and through the door came an old woman selling flowers. If you have been
to Europe, you know the woman. Her long coat was dripping with rain, her rundown shoes left wet footprints as she went from
table to table with her basket of flowers. No one bought any, and she sat at an unoccupied table and said to the waiter, “A
bowl of soup. I haven’t sold a flower all afternoon.” In one corner, a piano player had been listlessly playing
some music of the season. “Can you imagine, Joseph? ”the flower woman said, “Soup on Christmas Eve.”
And they sat there in heavy silence.
Then the sailor, having finished his meal, got up
and walked over to the flower woman. “Merry Christmas, ”he said, smiling. “I would like two of your flowers.
How much are they?” “Oh, monsieur,” she said, “they are a franc apiece.” “I’ll take
two,” he said and handed her a 20-franc note. “Monsieur,” she said, “I don’t have change. I’ll
get some from the waiter.” “No, ma’am,” he replied, “don’t bother. The change is my Christmas
present to you.” And he leaned over and kissed her ancient cheek. Then he walked over to the writer and said, “Sir,
may I have the pleasure of presenting this corsage to your beautiful daughter?” Whereupon he handed the corsage to the
man’s wife, while the three boys broke into broad grins. Then he pressed the other corsage flat, put it into the letter
he had written, and said, “Merry Christmas, everybody!” and walked out into the night. Then, says the writer,
the restaurant exploded with Christmas. The old woman danced a little jig and called to the piano player, “Joseph, my
Christmas present! And you shall have half of it, so that you, too, can have
The American wife waved her hands, keeping time
with the music, tears in her eyes. The German couple stood up and began to dance. The French boy who had been slapped climbed
into his father’s lap. Everyone joined in his own language and manner with such enthusiasm that people streamed in from
the street to see what was going on.
Where is God in this world? That’s where He
is. Extraordinary spirit in an ordinary place. And it really has the power to change things, to change us. So that’s
where God is in this world - the extraordinary spirit of Jesus still present and powerful in very ordinary places. And the
danger is that we will miss it, pass it by, fail to
embrace and live it because we, like those long ago, look for God elsewhere,
in political panaceas, in
miracles of technical know-how, in special exotic experiences, hoping that these
will lift from us the burden of life in this ordinary world.
So we need
to be careful about passing by the simple and apparently powerless for the more impressive and practical. We need to stay
humbly open for it, this extraordinary spirit in the ordinary. It is not obvious and over-powering. It is there nudging us
when we are least expecting it, consumed with other things. Running around under
our feet or meeting us in the eyes of loneliness and need. But with its stories and songs Christmas calls us once again to
let it in, give into it, this nudge running counter to the spirit of this ordinary age, the nudge of love, joy, peace, patience,
kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
is God in this world? In the ordinary of family and neighbor, friendship and
labor, all the casual and critical times, all the duties and diversions that are life. Says the old story; this is where He
is in this world of prestige and power, of celebrity and smarts, making His subtle subterranean way into our days as we are
humbly sensitive to the call of the Spirit, breathe it in, breathe it out as servants of this suffering king.
New York, London or Rome.
But in O Little Town.
In manger town. Our God came down.
From a sermon by Gilbert
W. Bowen, The Kenilworth Union Church, Dec 7, 2003