J. Grant Swank, Jr.


My wife and I had been married for nine years. Since our second year together, she had been ill. Now she was facing brain surgery.

Her illness forced me to leave my Midwest pastorate. We moved to my in-laws’ home in New England. Medical tests followed. Then the day of surgery.

It was Christmas, but it did not seem like Christmas to me. Traditional lights were glistening everywhere, and churches were abuzz with excitement, but I felt a coldness in my heart akin to the freezing rains that hit me as I trudged uphill to the hospital.

A world-respected physician, James L. Poppen of New England Baptist Hospital in Boston, believed the operation would relieve my wife’s constant head pain.

He would place a shunt in her head, connecting the brain to the heart for the release of pressure under her skull.

I spent many hours in the hospital’s chapel. I basked in the quietness there as I sought God’s peace for my troubled soul.

Our only daughter was in Connecticut with her Grandparents while my wife and I endured that somber holiday. I could hardly believe this usually cheerful season of the year could turn so dismal.

The hospital is located atop a city hill. To get there one must climb a narrow street often treacherous with December’s ice. I drove up that tiny passage each day to be near my wife.

Our Christmas Day would be spent in an old section of the hospital, with its barren walls and eerie alcoves.

I had no place to stay at night and could not afford a hotel. An older, unmarried friend of ours lived in a suburb nearby. Knowing that Priscilla, my wife, would be undergoing surgery and that I would be stranded in a strange city, Marian offered her home as a refuge for me during this difficult time.

During the day, Marian worked as secretary to the Dean of Students at a college in the area. After arriving home in the evenings, she would wait up for me like a mother hen. Upon my return from a draining day of being with my wife at the hospital, Marian would share her genuine laughter and a cup of hot tea. I needed both.

One night as I left the hospital, I discovered one of my tires was flat. My car was parked on the top of the lonely hill. My feet and hands were freezing in the awful winds.

After changing the tire, I was in no mood for celebrating any holiday, let alone the most meaningful one of the year. I was anxious to ditch it all and get on with a new year, praying that it would be a lot better than the one we had just staggered through.

When I arrived at Marian’s home, I discovered that she was in a festive mood. The tiny apartment was lighted throughout. Simple refreshments were waiting on the small table, and her heart was merry.

I thanked God for the pullout couch that was awaiting me in the den. And I was particularly grateful for this warm abode where I could dry out my dampened spirit.

“Marian, you need some practical additions to this place,” I said one evening while taking stock of her living quarters. I noticed that there were a number of items missing from her kitchen tools, baskets, racks for this and that.

“Oh, I know,” and I could have bought them a long time ago, but I guess I never got around to it,” she replied.

I knew Marian gave a lot of her money to college students in need. One by one she would invite them over to feed them, listen to them, and pray with them.

Over the years she became so popular with the students that they set aside a special day one year and named it after her. They made her the guest of honor in that day’s chapel service, presenting her with a gift from the whole student body.

Considering the typical needs of college students, I could figure out why Marian was missing one convenient device after another. So when returning one night from the hospital, I decided the Lord was nudging me to pack a collection of household gadgets into a large plastic clothes carrier.

I must have looked strange walking into that apartment building with this array of items. Nevertheless, I had more of a Christmas feeling as I climbed the several flights of stairs to her door on the top floor.

I knocked. She opened the door, and I rushed in with my assortment of gifts. One by one I lifted them into the air for her to see.

She smiled as she handled each present with delight. I darted into one space after another, suggesting just where she could use each present. Soon the kitchen and living room were adorned with new objects that spelled my thanksgiving at Christmastime.

My wife’s surgery was over. There was a long recuperation period to go through. It would be well into January before she could be released from the hospital for a return trip to Connecticut.

Yet in the midst of it all, I felt that the awful loneliness of the city was beginning to ebb for both of us. We were being buoyed with new hope for the future.

“But why did you buy all these things?” Marian asked. “You cannot afford these.”

She was right, of course. But I could not afford to have done otherwise. I knew that without her hospitality to me at Christmas, I would not have made it.

“Marian, it’s the least I can do for you. You have been so kind to me that I just felt I had to do something to say thanks. So this is it.”

She broke into laughter and walked toward the teapot again, ready to pour me a cup. I saw tears in her eyes as she moved into the kitchen. I knew she understood my feelings better than I could express them in words. After all, I was one of those young persons she had helped through the years.

As I sipped the steaming tea, I looked at her, framed against the Christmas lights shining from the living room window. The glow was unmistakable. It was then that I knew it to be true that in the midst of my confusion and heartache, God had sent me an angel at Christmastime.

No Christmas can ever be too bleak for Him. His messengers are still at work, no matter how dark the times.

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