Christmas Eve – A Life Remembered

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ….” Titus 2:11-13

Joshua Christopher Davidson first saw the light of day in December 1922, the third child of Jack and Helen Davidson. He was born at his parents’ home on Evans Avenue, and so close to midnight that no one could ever say if he was born on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. He was baptized on the sixth day of January 1922 at St. Stephen’s Church on 8th Avenue near Walnut Street in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. He spent his first Christmas Eve 1923 at home with his mother and siblings, while his father, Jack, and his paternal grandparents attended the Midnight Communion service at St. Stephen’s.

Pocket knife1933  Josh was 11 years old. The Depression Years. In the spring of the year, FDR began his famous Fireside Chats. And although the average worker was making 60% less than the pre 1929 wages, the hope of the New Deal had somehow lifted peoples’ spirits in the Monongahela Valley. Young Josh sang that Christmas Eve in the Boys Choir. It was his first Christmas Eve at the Midnight Service—and if you had asked him years later, he would have told you it was the best Christmas of his childhood. When he opened his present on Christmas morning, he grinned from ear to ear. It was the pocketknife he had been admiring all fall every time he went into the five & dime. He spent the lion’s share of the day whittling a piece of wood into a miniature manger for the baby Jesus.

1943  Josh was not home for Christmas Eve. He was to turn 21 near Cassino, Italy in the middle of a horrible war. He was an infantryman in the 5th Army under Lt. General Mark Clark. They landed in Salerno in the late summer, marched north up the Italian Peninsula meeting heavy German resistance at every turn. When they reached Cassino, 75 miles south of Rome, the German fortifications halted them to stand still. They had been there since early November and had seen some of the worst fighting of the entire war. In fact he had seen such horrible suffering, and so many of his fellow soldiers had been mangled or died, he wondered if he even believed in God any longer. When the army chaplain announced Christmas Eve Communion for the troops, Josh wasn’t even planning to attend. But while he was arranging his duffle bag, he reached in his pocket and felt the pocketknife he was given ten years before and thought of Christmas back home. Mother and Father would be saying special prayers for him at the Candlelight service at St. Stephen’s—Ruth, his high school sweetheart kneeling beside them. So he went.

The chaplain spoke on the Promise of the Angels: “Glory to God in the highest and peace, good will toward men! Peace — maybe you soldiers find it hard to believe in peace. I tell you men there never will be peace, true peace, and lasting peace until the Son of God is born inside the hearts of men. For when Jesus is born in a man’s heart, that man is born again and the peace of God flows into him. You can have that peace tonight, a peace with God that will last forever.” At an altar call Josh went forward and as he prayed the prayer of invitation he felt a strange warmth fill his heart—it seemed he understood for the first time the blessing from the Book of Common Prayer, “The Peace of God, which passeth all understanding,  keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God….”

1953  He was 31. How dramatically the world had changed in ten years and so had his life. Ike was president. The Eisenhower years had the economy booming. After the war, Josh returned to McKeesport, married Ruth and landed a job with G. C. Murphy Company. He and Ruth had their first child, Sandy, who was 4 years old and John who was one, and another child on the way. They were busy buying their first home up on Riverview Avenue. He had heard Bing Crosby’s recent hit, “Silver Bells” playing in the store so many times he knew it all by heart. On Christmas Eve, after he closed the store at five, he and the family went to his parents for dinner. Ruth then took the children home and he went with his mother and father to the Midnight service at St. Stephen’s. As he knelt in the pew after receiving communion, the pocketknife slid in his pocket and he remembered that night 10 years before in Cassino, Italy, how the Lord had come into his life. Now he had a wife, two children, a good job and his own home. “Thank thee, Lord” just didn’t seem adequate—a paltry thing to say. In the candlelight the words rang out, “Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm all is bright.”  Quietly he prayed, “I give you my life, Lord….” hardly knowing what he meant by the words. When he got home he trimmed the tree, unloaded the tricycle for Sandy, and looked out through the back window under the soft glow of the Christmas Tree lights. He saw all of Christy Park below the river’s bluff. All was calm; all was bright. God was good!

1963 Now 41 he wondered how it had happened that more people called him Mr. Davidson than Josh. Sandy was 14, John 11, Rick 9. Ruth taught Sunday School, he helped with the Boy Scout Troop at church, and Church School Camp. Life seemed pretty good. Though he sensed there were strange changes afoot in the world. Just a little over a month earlier John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. What would come next? He was a bit frustrated with the church, even though he was a vestryman. He liked the more fiery sermons of Billy Graham and lobbied for more evangelism. Yet come Christmas Eve, there was no place he’d rather be than St. Stephen’s.

1973  At 51 he wondered how life had grown so complicated. They had moved across the Boston Bridge. His son, John, after a brief stint in Vietnam was attending Penn State. Rick who still lived at home had given Josh and Ruth a scare by getting into drugs, but now he was working at the Duquesne Mill. Since his father died two years earlier, he and Ruth spent Friday evenings taking his mother shopping. Ruth had taken a part-time job at a jewelry store at the Eastland Mall. And so he left the office early on Christmas Eve day to pick up Sandy and her husband from the airport. They were living in Atlanta. Sandy was now eight months pregnant and how shocked he was to see his daughter looking so round and maternal. He had been so busy this year it was not until he reached in his pocket for his pocketknife cutting the airline tags off their luggage that all the normal emotions of Christmas began to reach through his hectic schedule.

He was a Lay Reader that evening at the Candlelight Service and when he stood to sing the sequence hymn, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, the words of the hymn almost knocked him over—O ye, beneath life’s crushing load/Whose forms are bending low/O rest beside the weary road/and hear the angels sing!  “Oh, Lord,” he prayed, “I’ve been so busy lately; I’ve hardly had time for You!”

1983  He was 61 and a full-fledged grandfather. Six grandchildren. They didn’t sit in the family pew that Christmas Eve. His granddaughter was singing in the Junior Choir at the 7:00 p.m. Family Christmas Service and Ruth had insisted on sitting up front. He complained but in truth didn’t mind. He had experienced a special touch of God’s grace that year, “A new freedom in the Spirit” is how he described it to any who would listen. He loved to hear and talk about the “Joy of the Lord.” He had even started raising his hands in worship at the occasional hymn and the Doxology. After taking an early retirement he even thought of becoming a vocational deacon until he felt led to start a local chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Andrew as well as a men’s bible study and fellowship group. What really made the evening service for him that year was when an old work associate, whom he had long been witnessing to and inviting to church showed up at the worship that evening.

1993  Seventy-one. The first Christmas in 47 years that he didn’t spend with his wife Ruth. She died in late spring from cancer, which she had been struggling with for two years. Josh wasn’t even going to put up the Christmas decorations but his daughter-in-law, Sue, John’s wife, had come by with their two teenagers and a freshly cut tree, saying, “We’re not leaving until the tree is up!” Sandy and her husband, Kent, were flying in from Georgia. All were going to John and Sue’s for Christmas Eve dinner. Josh thought he would just drive home but the kids (who were hardly kids now) insisted he go with them to St. Stephen’s. It was a cold snowy night. He got out of the car, put his hands in his pockets, steeled his heart and will, and headed in like a soldier going into battle. It wasn’t until he went to sit in the pew that he realized he had been clutching his pocketknife tightly in his hand as if somehow this would keep him from breaking down. The choir sang Handel’s “And the Glory of the Lord.” “Maybe,” he thought, “God’s glory can be seen in the suffering of God’s people if they submit faithfully to his will. What was it the Apostle Paul had written ‘I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us’.”

2003  Josh was 81. It would be his last Christmas. He spent Christmas Eve at a personal care home watching the service on TV from St. Thomas Church in New York City. On Christmas Day his granddaughter Megan and her eleven-year-old son, Jonathan Riccomini, visited him in the late afternoon. “Anyone drop by today, Pap Pap?” “Just a man from the church with a poinsettia.” “Did you know him?” “No. He was a new member of the Brotherhood of St. Andrew. You know I started that some 20 years….” “I know, Pap Pap,” she said interrupting him. She had heard the story so many times before. Josh looked at his great grandson. “How old are ya?” “Eleven, sir.” “Are you in that confirmation class down at the church?” “Yah.” “See that drawer under that there poinsettia? Go over there, get that pocketknife and bring it here. That’s it.” He clutched it one last time and then gave it to the boy. “I’ve had this knife for 70 years. Every time I put my hand around this knife I feel God’s mighty hand holding me. It’s yours now. You take it. And whenever you hold it you think of your great grand pap and the great God Almighty.” As they left, the hues from the setting winter’s sun shone golden on the windowpane. Josh said to himself under his breathe, “God is good, God is good.”

Joshua Christopher Davidson died on February 2, 2004. It was a cold sunny winter’s day when they took his casket to the graveside at the McKeesport-Versailles Cemetery. As they prayed the Lord’s Prayer, a cold gust of wind hit his family hard in the face. Young Jonathan Riccomini thought he was going to burst into tears. But he reached in his pocket, wrapped his young fingers around the old pocket knife and as he did he felt for the first time the mighty hand of God wrap warmly around him. When he came to he looked up only to see the priest’s hand raised and saying the blessing, “May his soul, and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.  Amen.”


*This was a sermon preached on Christmas Eve at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in McKeesport, PA where I was rector for thirteen years.  Joshua Christopher Davidson (whose fictional name speaks volumes) is not a real person. He has lived, however, in the lives of those parishioners I was honored to pastor during those years in the Mon Valley, and who allowed God’s grace to train them “… to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope…”

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4 Responses to Christmas Eve – A Life Remembered

  1. Bp. Keith L. Ackerman says:

    I love your bishop. He is my brother bishop, but he is my friend. He was my mother’s priest at St Stephen’s, where i was baptized and confirmed. I worked at Duquesne works and i was born on Evans Avenue. Parables convey greater truths than mere words can, and this timeless sermon conveys more than i can possibly tell you……as one who has walked those streets, served at that Altar and commended my mother to God’s care …………..St. Stephen’s. Bp Mark is an extraordinary priest and bishop – but he possesses a pastor’s heart…..not necessarily a gift given at ordination. He left a lasting impression on people who needed to know that they could be loved.

  2. Thank you, Diane and Joyce! Merry Christmas–so thankful for the twelve days….

  3. Joyce Wichmann says:

    Wonderful Christmas story, Bishop. It meant a lot to me on this cold Christmas morning.

  4. Diane s McNamara says:

    This brought many tears! Thanks for an inspiring, moving message!