sullivan_nancyThe windows of the coffee shop were decorated with pine garland and strands of cranberries.  As the snow fell outside the shop, I stomped the snow from my boots.

It was early December, the first week of Advent.

"I’ll have a medium latte with a shot of hazelnut."  I told the clerk

The coffee machines whirred as I took off my gloves and loosened my wool scarf.  I could smell mocha and cinnamon.

"Can I get that to go?"  I added.

While I waited for my drink, I began going through a mental checklist of upcoming tasks that I needed to complete at work.    I was the coordinator of a large Faith Formation program.  My December calendar was already packed with a host of seasonal activities: projects, prayer services, and weekly classes for the children.

"It’s good to be busy," I told myself.

Eleven months earlier, my oldest daughter, Sarah, had passed away at the age of twenty-three due to complications with her Downs syndrome.  Though I had weathered the worst of my grief, and I had two other daughters who brought untold joy to my life, this first Christmas after her death was indescribably difficult.  Sarah was gone.  And we missed her.

"Latte to go," the clerk called out.

"Thanks," I said as I put a plastic lid of my cup of hot coffee.

As I made my way to the door, I noticed an elderly woman sitting at a table near the counter.  With her gray hair neatly curled and styled, she wore a red blazer trimmed with a Christmas tree pin.  Her face looked welcoming and kind, covered with wrinkles that looked like little smiles.  She was dipping a tea bag into a ceramic cup filled with hot water.

"I wonder if she is waiting for someone.  I hope she isn’t alone," I thought.

I turned my glance toward the decorated windows. There, another elderly woman sat by herself drinking from a shiny red mug.   She was dressed up too, donned in a pine green sweater and pearls.

As I stood by the door, holding my coffee-to-go with gloved hands, I watched as the woman in pearls got up and made her way with slow shuffled steps towards the table where the other lady sat.

"May I join you?"  she asked, her aged hands wrapped tightly around the mug she had carried across the room.

"Why yes, I’d love to have the company," said the seated woman as she happily pulled out an empty chair.

The two strangers sat together and began getting acquainted.  I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation: " I grew up a few blocks from here…My husband passed away five years back…My grandchildren are coming to visit for the Christmas holidays…."  they told one another.  They talked with the ease of friends who had known each other for years.

I looked at my watch.  Though I was running late for work, I left the coffee shop with a smile on my face.   Trudging through the snow to my car, I couldn’t stop thinking about the newly forged friendship of these two beautiful ladies.

They had illustrated, in a metaphorical way, the wonder of that first long-ago Christmas.  Over 2000 years ago, God left his heavenly throne and visited the coffee shop of our humanity.  When he noticed that were alone, in wait of a savior, he befriended us.

"He came to keep us company," I told myself as I drove to work and my windshield wipers whooshed away the flakes of snow.

The chill of my grief began to melt as God’s presence warmed me like soft flames crackling in a fireplace.

A passage from Matthew came to mind, an Advent verse that I had memorized years earlier:

"Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means "God is with us."  Matthew 1:23

"I’m not alone."  I thought.  Even amid the sorrow of this season, Emmanuel was near.  His cup of compassion was mine to share.

As I drove home, I felt something I hadn’t felt since Sarah’s passing.  Hope.

A year has passed since that winter morning.  Once again, it’s early December, the second week of Advent.   I’m at a much different place than I was last year at this time.  Over the past months, the gift of hope, given to me by the women in the coffee shop, has continued to influence my life.

While it’s true that I still grieve the loss of my Sarah, this past year, Emmanuel has remained my loyal companion.  Each morning, he has drawn near to the table of my heart.  Time and time again, I’ve heard him whisper, "May I join you?"   It is his unwavering presence that has given me the strength to go on.

This Advent, if you are feeling the chill of loss, let the presence of Emmanuel fill you with warmth and comfort.  Pull up a chair for him at the table of your heart.  He’d love to have the company.

Copyright 2009, Nancy Jo Sullivan

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