“Realizing that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses...”
Somehow in all this mystical revelation and wonder, I managed to fall asleep in the cave. It’s been an exhausting experience to say the least.
I guess I felt comfortable around Mary and Joseph after a few of these visitors came and went and I drifted off.
I woke up about 3 hours later to Joseph and Mary’s quizzical smile and the wonderful smell of fresh popcorn in the air.
Yeah…popcorn. I sat up and rubbed my eyes and in my lap lay a huge box of popcorn, still hot. It was one of those red-white-and-blue striped boxes that you get at the ballpark or the drive-in…when they still had those.
I smiled and then I laughed. I knew exactly who I was going to see when I looked at the manger about 30 feet across from me in this dark cave. This cave, that no longer smelled like dirty sheep and damp straw, but like popcorn.
“What is this?” Joseph asked me, looking at the overflowing box. “I’ve never smelled anything like this or seen this before.” “It’s called ‘popcorn,’ Joseph. We eat it were I come from.” “Really…you eat this?” he responded. “Sure, it’s wonderful. Have some. Here Mary, try some of this.” I almost felt bad giving it to them because I knew they’d not have it ever again and I wondered if I wouldn’t be spoiling them forever. But it was so good, and I knew they’d want to know about it and to be honest…I knew they were hungry and I wasn’t going to eat it in front of them.
Joseph and Mary sat down on either side of me and we shared this enormous box of popcorn. What seemed funny was that we were all going at it as fast as we could. I have to say it was the best popcorn I ever had. Yet we never seemed to make a dent in the box. It was full to overflowing no matter how much we ate. Mary asked me about it and how it got there. I smiled, then I laughed. Then I took the opportunity to tell them all about the woman kneeling at the manger, holding Jesus in her arms and looking back over her shoulder towards the entry of the cave.
“She brought it with her…her name is Jackie.” I broke out into a wide grin when I said her name. Jackie had that effect on folks. “She is my friend. She moved on to Heaven a few years ago…on my birthday in fact. That’s why I never forget the date.” Mary looked at Jackie and back at me. “She’s so pretty, her smile especially,” the tiny mother of Jesus said. “Yes she is.” I answered, “I’ll tell you something, if you think her smile is beautiful now, just wait a moment longer. There’ll be another visitor here shortly. Then you’ll see a pair of smiles, that’s for certain!” Joseph looked at me with a questioning grin of his own. “How do you know this? And what does it have to do with this pop-corn, as you call it?” He queried.
“I’ll tell you about the popcorn first. You two will love this story.” Joseph and Mary faced me on either side, passing the bottomless popcorn box back and forth between them, spilling it like children and wondering at this new flavor. “Jackie had gotten very sick several years ago. She had some sort of ‘wasting disease’ that the physicians couldn’t heal.” I knew that trying to explain cancer to them was pointless. While I’m certain the disease existed in their time, I don’t think they understood it as we do and it would have been impossible to try helping them, and it didn’t matter to the story. I continued, “Jackie had been sick with it for a long while. Finally when it was apparent that it was time for her to move on to heaven, she was in a hospital. That’s where our physicians work to heal their patients. It’s something like the Pool of Siloam, except no angel stirs the waters.” Joseph and Mary seemed to comprehend that crude explanation so I continued. “Just before the Lord came for her to take her home, she told her husband to eat some popcorn and remember her by it. It was a strange and funny request and maybe it was just from the pain she was in. But I think it was just Jackie’s unique sense of humor and she somehow knew that instead of making her husband sad, it would make him -and everyone who loved her- smile a little. I think it was her last going-away gift to those who loved her.” Mary had tears in her eyes and looked at the popcorn in her hand. “She sounds amazing. What a wonderful thing for her to do,” Mary whispered.
Joseph was silent for a few long seconds, and then he asked me “You said there would be even more smiles and you spoke of someone else coming here. Who?” I was about to answer Josephs question when a man entered the cave on his knees. He was silver-haired and sported his usual mustache. Joseph whispered to me, “Is this him?” “Yes,” I said, holding back a tear, “This is the guest I was expecting. This is Jackie’s husband Dean.” I have to pause and regain my composure for a moment. Dean is a dear, dear man and I look up to him as a sort of father-figure / older brother. He loves baseball, as I do. He loves woodworking and construction. But more than anything on earth -more than any definition you could attach to Dean Nichols- he loves his wife. Long before Jackie got sick, when I first met them, Dean adored her and it was more evident on his face than any man I have ever known except maybe Terry Chapman. He was the husband I hope I get to be someday. He wore his adoration for his beloved Jackie like a badge of honor and he was proud to display it. Jackie was precious to Dean during her time on Earth and here in the manger, in the presence of the infant giver-of-life, she is as precious as she ever was. More so, in fact.
“Joseph…” I whisper, “Look at his shirt” Joseph and Mary look at Dean as he approaches Jackie. “What?” Joseph asks. I open my mouth to speak but before I can say a word, Mary smacks Joseph playfully on his arm. “Joseph…honestly!” she cries in feigned disbelief. “They match!” Mary chuckles and gives Joseph a hug and a kiss on his cheek. Mary’s words pierce to my heart. There was a world of profound wisdom in her observance. “They do Mary, they really do,” I offer softly, more to myself than to my two hosts. “They match…” My voice trails off and I choose to just sit and watch Dean and his beloved Jackie. This baby gives eternal life to them both and so the distance between them is really no distance at all. United here at the manger of Bethlehem, they are not apart at all. No death, no sting, no yearning. Only the promise that the separation is smaller than we realize and never permanent. Knowing that his precious wife is truly alive keeps Dean’s love for her more than merely alive…it grows. I know this wonderful man well enough to know that he loves her more today than he did the day before. And that wonderful love will grow until they reunite one day in Heaven. And it will go on forever.
Dean is tender and loving with Jackie. He holds her in awe. I lean over to Joseph and whisper, “Joseph, if you want to see how a man loves his wife well, watch my friend Dean. Look at his face Joseph. Look at his smile. Find that sort of feeling with Mary and you’ll find happiness forever, my friend.” Joseph looks intently at the pair worshipping before us. “Tell us about the shirts…about why they match,” Mary whispers. This makes me giggle a bit. “As far as I know, it started when they would go square-dancing together…” The words hadn’t stopped echoing in the cave yet, when I laughed. How would I describe square dancing to these two? “It’s a type of dancing we do back home…well some of us do. I’m not very good at it and I’m too big to hide my weaknesses as a dancer. But Dean and Jackie did it very well. They wore matching shirts as part of the dance costumes, and it became a habit with them. Jackie was a wonderful creator of clothing. She was very talented. They always matched.” I thought for a minute… “The really matched in their hearts too. They were a real true couple”.
There is nothing left to explain to Mary and Joseph about my friends who have come to worship Jesus. So we just watch. I know Dean and I know how he misses his precious wife. I know she is ever present in his life, and not just in memory. She lives because this baby lives. She is simply a breath away, in a place where we simply can’t see her, but we know she is there. She is here tonight with her beloved Dean, because this baby consumed death and brought life.
Dean eventually leaves his bride and Jackie walks out not long after. I am left staring at the manger where they held our Savior and where life overcame the pain of death until death itself was overcome. I think about Jackie and her smile and her graciousness and her humor and her loving heart. Her talents to create some pretty impressive shirts that her wonderful husband proudly wore. I think about her input in our small-group where to this day we think of her whenever we gather. We remember her, long for her, and anticipate the day when we’ll all be together again.
…and usually we have some popcorn.
“Laugh with me! Death is dead! There is only life! There is only laughter!” –Eugene O’Neil “Lazarus Laughed”