A Christmas Pilgrimage

Morris Ertman
December 25, 2012

The drive from Rosebud to Breton, Alberta seemed to go on forever. Darkness descends much too early in the dead of winter, so the reward of seeing countryside one hasn’t seen before was diminished, left mostly to imagination as I passed through a few lit villages on the way. It was our second last show in a little tour that started out as a whim - spurred on by an unction to share story and song with whoever wanted to engage us in the Advent Season leading up to Christmas. This was presentation number 14 out of 15, at the end of a long drive on a wintry Tuesday night. It’s not hard to find the church in these little towns. It’s the one with all the lights on, anticipating our arrival. I pulled into the parking lot to find that Cassia Schramm, my story-telling partner in this little adventure, had already arrived, her tire tracks the first to break the newly-fallen snow. Well not the first. She had startled a deer when she pulled in. She pointed out it’s tracks leading into the stand of trees by the parking lot. We were welcomed by the youth pastor - a warm young man with a young family who had been at the church for a number of years. He didn’t know how many people would be coming, optimistically helping us set up the bit of amplification we needed to tell our simple story. He wasn’t a technician, but helped as best he could. People started filing in, including someone who understood how to make the guitar amplification work, so we stepped up to the microphones to do a sound test with a bit of song and story. And the place fell silent with anticipation. As we sat down to wait for the evening to start, we were warmly welcomed by individuals expressing their gratitude for our coming to share in the life of their church in this special season. Some of them drew connections to family that we might know about. And like virtually every community we have shared with, there were family and friendship connections that spanned generations.

We finally spun our simple script-in-hand staging of Above Bethlehem, some people shuffling restless children from the room, others closing their eyes to listen to language that transported them somewhere, then opening eyes again as ears heard Cassia’s crystalline voice fill the little church with music. An hour passed surprisingly quickly and we were finished.  

Tear-filled conversations with individuals after the presentation revealed open, seeking, grateful hearts. The last people to leave the church - helping me pack a few music stands into the car - were an elderly retired gentleman who used to run a farm implement dealership and his aging mother. She thanked me again for telling a story that was “different” but full of the Gospel. I acknowledged her thanks by saying that it was an honor to receive such words from a saint. I truly meant it, and she knew it.

I think we live in one of the most beautiful, open and loving provinces in the country. This little Advent tour of Alberta communities has shown people of different denominations, in different parts of the province - both urban and rural, to be soul-seekers. We are a people hungry for story and song that reveal the softness of the human heart, teasing out the mysteries we wonder about late at night and early in the morning. We are a people who understand that these mysteries - the things we talk about that bring tears or a quickening of our heartbeat - inevitably bind us one to another in some way.

As I drove the much shorter distance from Breton back to Millet, I passed through towns I had visited as a child, riding with my Dad to auctions and sales. He too was one of those Albertans whose heart quickened to significant story and song shared. We’re all the same, really - whether we’re farmers, academics, business folk, moms and dads, teenagers, pastors or artists. We crave spiritual story and song.

I passed farmyards lit up with hundreds of Christmas lights - barns and sheds with giant signs declaring “Peace on Earth”, “Joy To The World”, like sentinels in the darkness along the road. Some of them had stars that crowned the highest building on the yard. In one lit-up 1960s farm-house picture window, a young man stood on tip-toes to place a light on the point of a Christmas tree - reaching. I don’t know if he realized in that moment that to my eyes, he was a living art installation reflecting a deep spiritual poetry. He certainly couldn’t know that a pilgrim in one of the cars passing his farmhouse on an evening before Christmas would see him as a sacred sentinel to faith and family, stretching his arms upward in a gesture that to me was as sacred as any Priests’.  

As my car headlights cut bright light into the curves and bends of the road, snow filtering down and through the cones of light, I felt like I was returning home from a pilgrimage to holy places in Alberta. I wondered if this was how the Wise Men felt on their way home from a tiny out-of-the-way Bethlehem, their eyes having been opened to the inherent goodness in shepherds gathered around a husband and wife with a Holy Baby. I wonder if like I, they encountered families and communities with meaningful expressions of heart made visible in small rituals, the ancient equivalent of the man stringing lights on his Christmas tree; barns lit up with bright statements of hope; or an elderly Breton Alberta Saint whose words were prophetic because I suspect she was well practiced in the art of blessing.

And as I reflect on the closing of Above Bethlehem and May and Joe, I realize that we folk in Rosebud have been visited by and indeed have had the privilege to visit wise men and shepherds and angels ... priests and saints. I realize that this province is full of such people, searching to uncover the mysteries of the human heart and it’s significance within the sacrament of their everyday lives - the words “Merry Christmas” words of blessing made even more sacred by people that actually believe what they say.

So, to all of you wise persons, shepherds, angels, priests and saints on this Christmas Day, “Merry Christmas” from this Rosebud pilgrim.

A Christmas Pilgrimage

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Morris Ertman