A Christmas Eve Story
(c) Copyright 2000 Rev. Bill Versteeg
Thunder ripped across the snowy hills surrounding Pekoa Bay.
"Winter Thunder" is how people describe it along the northern shores of Lake Ontario. In the lake's many bays and inlets, the silence of a winter morning can suddenly be broken by a crash and then an echo bouncing off far away hills. "Winter Thunder" its called because there is no better description for the sound that comes when giant sheets of ice, miles long, up to 3 feet thick, driven by forces of cold, heat and current, rip apart from each other in a window rattling display of raw power.
Tim and Sarah loved "Winter Thunder." They often heard it in the distance as they lay drifting off to sleep on cold winter nights. The next morning, especially when close "winter thunder" struck, they would run outside before school to see if they could see where the ice had buckled and broken, where one giant sheet of ice had shifted on top of another. From their house which overlooked Pekoa bay, they would run a few hundred feet to the ices edge, looking out for changes on the lake. But their curiosity was always cut short by the arrival of the Trenton School Bus and their attention would soon focus on other things.
Christmas holidays had come. Pekoa bay became a hub of activity. Snowmobilers loved to let their machines run as fast as possible over the wind blown ice. Skaters from miles away would come to enjoy the endless stretches of ice. Friends would skate hand in hand talking about memories and shopping lists. Children would take sheets from their beds, hold them up and let the wind push them till they had to stop so they could find their way home before dark. Girls would twirl. Boys would chase. Parents would call out "Be Careful." And every time the ice broke, everyone would stop, look toward the lake and quietly reflect on the power of the ice until somebody said "Sounds just like thunder doesn't it."
Christmas Eve was exciting at Tim and Sarah's house. The Christmas tree was ready with its colourful lights and popcorn strings. But forget that; the real stuff was the colourful display of boxes and bags wrapped underneath.
"Can we reorganize the presents under the tree?" Sarah asked.
"You already did it three times today!" answered Mom. "Why don't you guys get away from that tree and out of my hair!" Mom was busy making a special supper for their family; she didn't like settling the occasional arguments. Tim and Sarah's curiosity could only be distracted by vigorous exercise. They needed to get away from the tree, get their minds focused on other things.
"Get outside! Burn off some energy!" Mom called.
"Can we go skating mom? Look at all the others out there."
To Tim’s question the answer was “Yes, but be careful!” Tim got clear instructions to keep an eye on his sister.
"Ya ya mom."
Sarah could kind of tell he wasn't really listening; besides Mom always said that. Gladly Tim and Sarah got dressed for outside, wrestled on their skates, got Mom to tie them and headed toward the lake.
The lake, the ice, was beautiful that day. With the warming of the temperatures the last few days, the top of the ice was just a little moist - and fast. With each experienced stroke, Tim's skates seemed to glide and glide effortlessly. Sarah was just getting used to skating. She could dig in her picks, run a few wobbly steps and then glide, hoping to keep her balance and hoping she would find some way to stop. She hadn't mastered the art of stopping yet. Somehow in the challenge of keeping her balance, she forgot all about the Christmas tree and the boxes underneath.
Neighbours were skating too: the Johnsons, the Potters and the O'Neils. And a man with dark skin and a funny sounding voice, a leather jacket and old used skates, who seemed to be able to have fun with everybody, kids and grownups alike. He had a little difficulty skating, but his adult strength more than adjusted for his lack of experience. He seemed to find a particular joy walking on water with steel blades strapped to his feet.
The afternoon sun kissed the bay. People would turn their faces toward the sun to feel its full embrace. Tim had turned his focus to playing hockey with Randy Johnson. The young man with dark skin joined in the fun: skating, falling and trying to get his borrowed stick on the puck.
Tim called out "Where you from?"
The man answered "Far far away mun."
Tim in a quieter tone of voice asked "What's your name?"
Cupping his ear the man responded "E-mun?" But Tim didn't get the question in the foreign accent. From then on the dark skinned man from far away was called "Emun."
Tim was having a great time. This man with a hockey stick didn't have a chance against him, he could skate circles around him. But Emun was having an even better time; at times he had to stop skating just to get control his contagious laughing.
Sarah was off in the distance doing her best to learn the push - push – glide. She was doing it for the first time. Digging in her picks, first with the left foot and then her right foot, then gliding for a short ways, then without stopping; digging in left, right and gliding, she felt her confidence increasing - push -push - glide - push - push – glide. This was a lot of fun. The accomplishment gave energy to each step to try and try again.
Then it happened: a loud “crack.” Sarah thought it was behind her but the crack was followed by a rumbling thunder that made the ice roll beneath her feet. As hundreds of tons of ice shifted, the rumbling was both sharp and deafening. And then a few yards in front of her feet, Sarah screaming saw it, the ice opened up quickly, first an inch, then two, then a foot, two feet and Sarah didn't know how to stop! Paralyzed with fear she tried falling, her body would not respond. Finally she fell, but the warm ice was like glass, very slippery. She slid and slid. Splash! Dark painfully cold water wrapped itself around her little body, stinging her face, her hands, and as it rushed through her warm clothing, her entire body.
Paralyzing cold, she could not move. Pain was everywhere. She tried to kick, move to the top, but she didn't know how to swim.
On top of the ice everybody had stopped awed by the power of "Winter Thunder" so very close. The thunder echoed from the hill sides along the lake. They stood in silence waiting for the echoes to stop. Somebody had their mouth open to say "Sounds just like thunder doesn't it!" but a young boy's voice first broke the silence.
"Sarah!!" Tim didn't see her any more. He had been distracted by hockey but out of the corner of his eye he had occasionally watch to see where Sarah was. Now she was suddenly gone!
"Sarah!!!" His voice was angry this time! But there was no answer anywhere! Then Tim noticed Eman. He seemed to be flying on his skates; each powerful stroke carrying him faster and faster toward the break in the ice, one hundred, two hundred meters, seconds seemed like an eternity. Eman tumbled to the ice and then dove through the two foot crack into the black icy water. Now the icy cold grip of death wrapped itself around his body too, water ripping through his clothes, stinging pain on every part of his dark skinned body. Even as he entered the water another loud crack ripped through the ice throwing thunder for miles around. Eman swam with efficient strokes through the blackness under the moving ice, ignoring the painful powerful rumbling sounds that came from above.
Five powerful strokes and he was able to see Sarah's almost lifeless form in the deep murky water. A few more and he was there with her, grabbing her limp cold body and with powerful kicks and strokes pulling her toward the crack in the surface ice that now was quickly becoming smaller.
Neighbours hesitated. Some headed for shore; others quickly skated to the ices edge and saw what was happening. The ice was shifting back. The large crack in the ice was inching together with an unstoppable power. As they arrived, they searched desperately for any signs of life. Then a short distance away from where Sarah had fallen in, her shoulder appeared, then her head. The Johnsons ran over and reached down to grab her from the closing crack. Underneath a dark skinned man pushed her up. The Johnsons pulled Sarah on top of the ice just in time and then they saw it: the dark skinned hand with the leather jacket slipped back into the water, under the ice. The crack was now to narrow for a man. Then with a crushing grinding sound, the crack closed.
There was silence again, except for the gurgling sound as Mrs. Johnson quickly forced water out of Sarah's lungs helping her to start breathing again. But Eman was gone!
Sarah’s breath came quickly. She shivered and shivered for it seemed hours, first in the emergency ward of the hospital and then later Christmas Eve at home in front of the fire. Even when her mother hugged her again and again she shivered; not so much anymore because of how cold she was, now more because of the thoughts that raced through her mind. Thoughts about how dangerous Winter Thunder can be. Thoughts about a dark skinned stranger called Eman, full of fun and life; that had disappeared into the cold water under the ice. Emergency teams cut a hole in the ice. Divers had gone under but they could not find him. They suspected currents had carried him away.
Yet even as she shivered at the thought, the thoughts made her feel warm inside. To think that somebody would care enough about her to give up their safety and the fun to dive into the water with her, become like she was, bitten and stung by the ice cold water, just to push her back through the crack to safety. And he couldn't get through any more...
It was a quiet Christmas, both happy and sad. The presents were not very important anymore. Sarah had her life and that was the most wonderful present for everybody.
Something wonderfully strange happened three days later. One of the neighbours found some clothing neatly folded on the shore of the lake: a leather jacket and a pair of well used skates. Nobody knew who they belonged to. Tim suggest they belonged to Eman. Sarah knew they did but most others couldn't believe it. Eman was long gone; how could his cloths get there.
But Sarah held these things close to her heart. Christmas had become for her a time when somebody came to save her. When the pastor at church told how Christmas was the time when Jesus who was called Emmanuel was born to come to rescue us from our sin, Sarah knew what it meant to be rescued and she would never forget those strong rescuing arms that lifted her out of the water and gave her life again.
Lord Jesus, on Christmas day many years ago, you who were God choose to dive into the coldness of this world to experience our pain, to experience with us the coldness of death so that you might save us from death and sin and give us new lives. That is why you, the baby born in Bethlehem were called "Emmanuel” – that is “God with us." You knew what it was like to be drowning in sin so you saved us. Thank you our Lord Jesus, for being born for us in Bethlehem. Amen.