This past spring, Grandma Gertrude had passed away and the family gathered for a funeral just as the snow was melting and folks were thinking about planting their gardens. The funeral was a good one in the Lutheran tradition complete with ham sandwiches and jello along with a hot dish or two, and a variety of bars for desert. And it was, as they say, a good death as well. Gertrude was 94 when she passed. She had lived a full life, had children, grandchildren, great grandchildren. She was the last of seven siblings. Old age and a variety of medical conditions had made life difficult mentally and physically. She had been confined to a nursing home, against her wishes, for a few months. At the funeral the family was sad. But it was time. And it was spring. And the family reconnected at the funeral, then said their farewells, after dividing up the personal belongings. It was, as they say, a good death and a good funeral.
But because Gertrude grew up in the depression years there were far more belongings than were wanted by the coming generations. And so what could not be given to either relative or charity was placed in a rented storage unit with the understanding that the fate of the unit’s contents would be decided by the Fourth of July and emptied by Labor Day. But, as one could have predicted, it was now Thanksgiving, and no one had said or done anything about the storage unit or its contents. And to be honest, nobody had given Grandma Gertrude’s death much thought all year long. It seems that life can be busy for all those grandchildren and great grandchildren. Places to go. People to see.
Until Thanksgiving came. With the coming of the winter holidays came thoughts about the family. Grandma Gertrude was an integral element in the family’s holiday customs. And this year, more than a few of the family had re-assembled for a celebration in the home of one of the daughters who still lived in the town where they had all been raised. Perhaps this Thanksgiving a baton was being passed to another generation.
The dinner went well: turkey and dressing, vegetables, yams, cranberry sauce, a white wine, not too dry. And the conversation around the table was cordial and warm. Talk turned to Christmas and the possibilities for this year. Plans were being hatched.
Then suddenly there was a pause. A silence. An awkward moment. For it seems that several people at the table at almost exactly the same time remembered one of the most important things about Christmas for this family. It was Grandma Gertrude’s stollen: her special Christmas bread, laced with cinnamon, raisins and other fruit, thick, with a firm crust, covered over the top with white icing. It wasn’t Christmas without Grandma Gertrude’s stollen.
As the dreadful possibility of Christmas without the sacred stollen began to surface, the group decided that this would not do. And that the best thing would be to find Grandma’s recipe (several people remembered that she had written it down on a grease stained 3 by 5 inch card somewhere) and then bake the bread using her instructions. That satisfied the group, and the dinner conversation continued.
But the first week in December suddenly came, and it was clear that Grandma Gertrude’s stollen recipe was missing. Had she placed it somewhere before she went into the nursing home? Was it with the kitchen items that had gone to Good Will? Did one of the children have the recipe tucked away somewhere?
Each of the children and some of the grandchildren had a theory about the missing recipe which reflected their own approach to life. One daughter was given to conspiracy theories. She was sure the government was hiding extraterrestrial evidence in New Mexico, that the water was fluoridated as a form of government mind control, and that her phone was being tapped by the NSA. She informed the family by email that she felt the recipe had been stolen. And for awhile the group focused its attention on the stolen stollen. But soon, some in the family decided that the stollen was not stolen, but simply missing.
Two of the more practical children decided that it must be in the storage unit. So they called a group of family members together. And on one very cold morning the second week in December, the group sorted through all of the things in the unit, including the seat cushions of Grandma’s rather dilapidated favorite chair. The recipe was not to be found. So they put everything back into the storage unit, shut the door and promised each other that they would eventually clean out the unit. Someday. But not now. It was too cold. Still, although the recipe for stollen was not stolen, and although it was not in the storage locker, it was still missing.
In the meantime, the more sophisticated of the children decided that the best thing to do was to find a stollen recipe on the internet. There were hundreds of stollen recipes on the web. And they tried two or three before discovering that Grandma’s stollen tasted so much different from the web based digital versions that this approach should also be abandoned. Better to have no stollen at all than a wimpy web digital replica of the stollen beloved by them all.
And that was where the family was headed: hurtling headlong into a stollenless Christmas. And for the first time since they all had made peace with that useful but inherently artificial construction known as a good death, they genuinely started to grieve and weep. For Gertrude was gone. And the stollen was gone. And the recipe could not be found. And it was Christmas time.
Then a few days before Christmas a wayward granddaughter showed up in town. Every family has a least one of these: grandchildren that don’t fit the family mold, who go their own way, and are hardly heard from all along life’s way. One hardly knows where they are living at any time. This wayward one had not made it to the funeral, had not come to Thanksgiving, and had no idea that the family was in such dire straits over a loaf of bread. She was thirty years old. What did she know?
But soon she began to sense how important the stollen was. And this one, for all her waywardness, or perhaps because of it, actually remembered, remembered where Grandma kept the recipe. Gertrude actually used the greasy card as a bookmark in her Bible. She inserted it on the page with her favorite passage: the sacredness of the text and the bread leavening each other all year long. The wayward one had no idea what that favorite passage was. But if the Bible were around, they would have the recipe.
One of the daughters had the Bible, taken on the day of the funeral, now stored in her basement. There it was: the recipe card, toward the back of the book, in the first chapter of Philippians, marking a passage Grandma had underlined several times along with additional stars in the margin:
And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and wisdom to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus. (verses 9-11)
And with the ingredients, the proportions, and the instructions; Grandma’s stollen came to life. Several loaves were baked. The children and grandchildren, and great grandchildren, the cousins and nieces and nephews, uncles and aunts ate their fill and all knew again the special warmth of Christmas past in the present: that special warmth that can only be felt by tasting again a Grandmother’s Christmas love.
These days, as the generations rise and fall, as they say, we may be as close as we ever have been to loosing the recipe that our fore mothers and fathers used all their lives to bake the bread of human hope that sustains us in the darker days. These days with each generation, there is less and less interest in the churchly things: those great recipes for human love and justice and beauty and perseverance that generations have used to construct meaningful lives and hopeful hearts: those great recipes preserved by liturgy and conviction, tradition and moral persuasion. In our flight from authorities of all kind, especially religious, we have consigned the great principles of the past to the storage lockers of our grandmothers’ ancient possessions. We are not yet ready to throw them away. But we are also not very interested in sorting through the past to see what is really there. And for many of us, this night has become a brief encounter with things we have almost forgotten or never did really know as we sing those songs and light these candles while we pause along life’s bustling way, vaguely searching for the recipe that makes life worth living.
And all of that is fine, I suppose. We really don’t need the stollen. Or Grandma’s Bible verse. Or all those things gathering dust in the attic of human memory. Or do we? Who are you? And how do you assemble a life of hope and joy? How do you live well? What does your life mean? What is your recipe for what matters? Where do you keep that grease stained card that carries the truth by which you bake the bread of your life?
For this Christian thing called Christmas is really about your recipe, your construction of hope and joy, your renovation of justice and peace, the baking of the bread of your life. Oh yes, that construction will involve dealing with our past, our family, and our heritage: the good of it all as well as the bad. Oh yes, your recipe for life may not involve conspiracies, but still must deal with those assembling forces of collusion that hover around us and sometimes destroy our dreams. Oh yes, your recipe for life may not include being practical, but still must attend to the details by which all principles are practiced. Oh yes, your recipe for life may not involve the internet or innovation of any kind, but it will of necessity be tuned to the future more than the past.
But tuned to the future, based in the practical, aware of the collusions of life, and recognizing the good and the bad in our heritage; we may still not possess that recipe: until, until we listen to the wayward one, the outcast, the sufferer, the rejected, the lost. The recipe for the meaning of life always involves the edgy wisdom of the suffering one, a wild or wilderness voice coming from the margins of the human family, on the boundaries of the acceptable. And every little detail of the Christmas story in Luke and Matthew speaks to that. Jesus is born on the edge of the empire, to a peasant family, vulnerable travelers on the road, in the humblest circumstances, sharing the stable with beasts of burden, honored by smelly shepherds, pondered by a teenage mother who is engaged to a man who is not all that sure about things and is still sort of iffy on this virgin birth explanation.
The story says that it once was and always will be in the wayward one, the awkward one, the one that does not fit, the rejected ones, the disguised divine, that we discover that recipe for fully and completely tasting the joy of life, while we bake our bread of hope, singing a few songs while we are waiting for the bread to rise. We need, it turns out, this story, that narrated recipe, of a humbled God, resurrected from ancient pages preserved in love, to help us recover, renew, and rebuild our own lives and the world around us on dark winter nights.