She hands me this two-inch Christmas tree.
A Christmas tree made of salt-dough, painted and varnished.
She gives it to me right at the beginning, right when we meet.
The boughs of the tree in my palm, they are dough, cut and bent — these wee branches extended straight out. I don’t know how long it would take to make a tree like that.
Lidia’s mother, she’s telling me they’ve waited 3 years for a sponsor for Lidia. Lidia’s laying these Christmas ornaments right in my hand, one at a time.
It’s the first week of November.
I’m not thinking about Christmas.
“Lidia, she went all the way to the market for these.” Her mother tells us this in Spanish, pointing to the dough ornaments.
The mother tries to catch my eyes. She waits.
She waits until I am waiting on her next word — so she can frame just this:
“She bought these for you with her own money.”
And with one line, the dough ornaments in my hand, they feel like gold. Like an incalculable sacrifice.
She’s waited three years for a sponsor? And she’s taken what money she has and bought me a two-inch Christmas tree? I scan Lidia’s face, trying to understand.
“I just don’t want you to forget.” It’s her first sentence to me. She says it in a whisper. Shy. I try to hold her gaze,
She looks away, looks down, down to the tree, fingering the branches of the tree.
“I just wanted you to remember me.”
I reach out and touch her cheek and say yes.
Yes, I will remember you.
I would fly away from her.
I would fly home in November and it would snow a bit in December and it would get cold.
We would decorate a tree in the living room.
We would hang her picture off a branch. I would set out her salt-dough ornaments. I would remember her smile and how she looked down.
We would read the stories in the Old Testament of the promise of His Coming and we’d walk through a living nativity, go to a re-enacted Bethlehem.
We would kneel at the manger.
I would kneel there and wonder at this God.
This God who shows up in the stench of a barn. If God avoided red carpets and opted instead to enter the black stable, is there anywhere the hallowed presence of God won’t appear?
If the blinding holiness of God breaks into this world with the cry of a child wrapped in filthy cloths, lying in a dung heap — then couldn’t God reveal Himself anywhere?
If we can’t ever fly from God, if God could show up anywhere— then when it’s exactly most unlikely for Him to come to us — it is most like Him to come to us right then.
I would kneel at the manger and it’d be so clear, right there in that scandalously helpless babe: God steps before us — in ways we can step away from Him.
It’s possible: You can abandon a baby on some backstreet behind a mall, Christmas shoppers passing by oblivious. You can nail God up to some tree. You can inadvertently turn your back on the beggar and the holy and God right before you while you decorate with the ivy and the holly and I know.
And I’d finger along it on the wooden grain of a manger trough— The God who needs nothing, came needy. The God who came to give us mercy, was at our mercy. And He who entered into our world, He let’s us say it in a thousand ways– that there is no room at the inn.
God steps before us in the need we can neglect.
He steps before us in the desperate child waiting for a hand, in the misfit down the street we don’t have to invite to dinner, in the relative that’s but a dressed up broken beggar sitting at the end of the table.
God steps in front of us not so much in the lovely — but in the unlikely.
I would be kneeling there at the manger, thinking of our God curled like a pod between trough planks, our God who paid with Himself, incalculable sacrifice, to lay down on the bark of a tree just to pull us close.
And I would remember Lidia standing there offering her tree.
When we’d walk out of the living nativity, walk away from the baby lying there, walk across the parking lot looking for our vehicle to drive home to our warmth and the music playing low and the lights of our tree, it’d almost be this moan on the wind:
I just wanted you to remember me….
When I was hungry — did you remember Me?
When I was hollowed out and emptied out and worn right out — did you remember Me?
When I was thirsty for water, parched for fresh grace, bone dry for the real Body of Christ — did you remember Me?
Oh, Christ Child.
I’d go home from the manger to our tree, the scent of God still on us.
It’s Hope’s letters and cards we carried to Lidia that hot meeting day. It’s Hope’s ornament that hangs on our tree beside Lidia’s shy smile.
I’d finger along those letters.
And it’s there too on the tree—
The salt dough angel Lidia had handed me, wings reaching out for a star.
Reaching for that shimmering ornament strung up in the night sky over Bethlehem.
That star over a manger, over an unlovely mess and an unlikely Messiah …
I’d reach it out and touch that ornament.
Yes, we will remember You.
In any of the thousand faces and ways You come.
Us all standing on this spinning orb before the manger, before these trees —
all our limbs and light and love reaching straight out.
How are you ‘parched for fresh grace, bone-dry for the real Body of Christ’? How can we remember you today in prayer?
How are you reaching out and remembering Christ in the least of these this Christmas?