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Christmas Eve
by Jo-Ellen Fisher

Murielle Peterson was a very little girl of 4 years old, of course, she was Murielle Brown, then, when her father first showed her the miracle of fireflies. They were sitting outside on the front porch of the cottage that the family had rented for a week in Maine. It was a warm summer evening, and they were listening for the loons on the lake to begin their nightly serenade.

Murielle’s father suddenly touched her gently on the shoulder and whispered, “Mielle, Darling, look over here into the field!”

Murielle turned her head and exclaimed, “Oh, Daddy, the stars have come down to earth!” and her father thought that the sweetest comment he had ever heard.

“Honey, those little lights you see twinkling on and off are from small insects called fireflies. They, too, are part of God’s miraculous creation!”

Of course, Murielle asked, as any 4-year-old will ask, “But why, Daddy? Why are they blinking, Daddy?”

Murielle’s father thought for a moment. “These fireflies, Mielle, are like tiny beacons of hope, of hope in the darkness. To see fireflies is to be blessed, because we’re reminded that even the tiniest light in the darkness can make a difference in the world.”

That was the longest speech that Murielle ever heard her father make. He was a very loving man but, usually, a man of very few words, so this small speech made a profound and lasting impression on her.

As the years passed, Murielle saw her older brother and sister get married and leave the family home and begin their own families. The circumstances were such for Murielle, however, that she “stayed home” and took care of her aging parents. The years passed quietly, and Murielle was content, if not happy. Her mother passed on before her father, but her father died within the next year very quietly in his sleep.

Murielle found herself, at age 35, parentless, husbandless, and childless, but, then, a miracle happened. She met Stephen Peterson, a teacher at the local high school and a bachelor. They fell in love, got married, and had two children, Matthew and Luke, within the next three years.

Murielle loved her husband and her children profoundly. She, also, loved her community and her church. As soon as Matt and Luke became toddlers, Murielle became a Sunday School teacher. She had always been a regular church-goer, especially enjoying the worship services, but teaching church school was way beyond “enjoyment.” With the exception of being a wife and mother, teaching the church children was the most personally rewarding thing Murielle had ever done. She loved teaching them about God’s love and telling them The Good News of Jesus, their Savior. She, especially, loved sharing stories about God’s light and hope. And she always told the children what her father had told her so many years ago about the fireflies.

Murielle taught Sunday School for 22 years, even past the time that Matt and Luke were grown and gone off to begin their careers and eventually their own families. She taught Sunday School right up until her beloved husband, Stephen, died suddenly, unexpectedly, on a windy March afternoon.

Both boys flew home for their father’s funeral, Matthew from Georgia where he was a computer consultant for a large corporation, and Luke from Michigan where he had gone to college and liked it so much he had settled there and was seriously dating a lovely young woman.

Murielle went through Stephen’s funeral as if in a thick fog or a shroud of darkness. Pastor Grace and all the other church family members gathered around to support her and help her grieve. After Matthew and Luke returned to their homes, Murielle tried to return to her “normal” life but there was nothing normal about it anymore. With Stephen’s death, the lights of joy had been turned off; a darkness enveloped her and, though she continued to go to church, Murielle could not teach Sunday School anymore. Even the story about the fireflies seemed too painful to share with the children any more.

The days, weeks, and months passed and the old saying that “Time heals all wounds” did not even begin to prove true for Murielle. She talked with her sons every week by telephone, tried to go about her normal daily routines, still attended Sunday worship and became re-involved in church activities, but she did everything as if in darkness.

When December came, Oldtown bustled with Christmas preparations. Murielle volunteered to coordinate the Christmas Eve fellowship hour that was held at the conclusion of the 7 o’clock Christmas Eve Service. Even her busy-ness did little to allay the darkness that surrounded her. In fact, when she looked out her window on the morning of December 24th, everything looked so gloomy that Murielle could not think of Christmas carols or the wonderful Christmas story. All she could think about was that she missed her beloved Stephen very much and wished her sons could come “home” for Christmas but knew they couldn’t. A poem she had learned back in high school, by a poet she had long ago forgotten, floated into her head:

     The sun that brief December day 
     Rose cheerless over hills of gray,
     And darkly circled, gave at noon, 
     A sadder light than waning moon.

It was in this mood that Murielle made it through the day and then off to church at 5:30 to set up for the Christmas Eve reception.

Pastor Grace was already in her office and came out to warmly greet Murielle and give her a hand with setting up all the food that had already been dropped off. Food dropped off was not usually a good sign. It often meant that people had another place to go but would have felt bad not contributing something to the church. Murielle thanked Pastor Grace for her offer of help and assured her she could do the setting up on her own. Murielle knew that Pastor Grace had a lot of preparation to do, and, besides, Murielle wanted to be alone. She did not want to darken anyone else’s spirits.

As Murielle worked in the hall, she could hear Jonathan Tingsley rehearsing the worship music and a few choir voices tuning up, but the church was oddly quiet for a Christmas Eve. Once in a while, Murielle thought she heard a car or two pull into the parking lot but very few people seemed to be coming to worship this year. At one point, Murielle even walked through the hall to the sanctuary door, opened it a crack and peaked in. Hank Green was hurriedly checking the pulpit and altar area, but, oh my. It was 6:45 and hardly anybody was there. Usually, by this time, the church was filling with happy and excited parishioners of all ages. Hank saw Murielle peaking in, gave her a little wave and then darted out to the narthex, probably to check a few more things. Murielle returned to her own work in the hall, the feeling of gloom even stronger because of the low turnout.

When Pastor Grace came out of her study at 6:55, all robed and stoled and glowingly ready for worship, Murielle tried to lesson the blow of the impending disappointment by warning the pastor that the attendance was very low this year, but Pastor Grace did not seem to hear her or, at least, was not paying much attention. Instead, Pastor Grace took Murielle by the arm and said very gently but firmly, “Murielle, come with me. There’s something very important outside that you need to see.” Murielle suddenly realized that Pastor Grace had Murielle’s coat over her other arm and was slipping it over Murielle’s shoulders. She walked with the pastor across the hall and out the side door of the church.

What Murielle saw first, as she and the pastor stood on the church steps, were the beautiful luminaries that were lining the church drive. Then, Pastor Grace touched Murielle gently on her shoulder, and Murielle turned toward the hill beside the church.

On this hill were fireflies--- hundreds of fireflies, blinking their little lights on and off! But how could there be fireflies in the cold of winter!? There couldn’t be, but there they were, over two hundred fireflies!

The stars had come down to earth, once more, and right in the middle of all the tiny fireflies with their little lights blinking on and off was one very large one, and Hank’s voice suddenly called out, Hey, Murielle, I’m the biggest firefly of all. This is my highway department emergency blinker.” And with a rush of realization, Murielle knew how much this church family, how much God, really loved her. Imagine standing out here in the freezing cold on a hill on Christmas Eve blinking little flashlights on and off, pretending to be fireflies! Murielle laughed and cried at the same time! … And the dark fog around her began to lift.

Little Mary Noelle Carpenter, whose birthday it was, and 13-year-old Bobby Richardson came toward Murielle, still clicking their little penlights, and after elbowing each other gently, Mary- Noelle started the speech Bobby was supposed to make but was too overwhelmed to do so. “Mrs. Peterson, we know how sad you’ve been for a long time, now, and we understand. But you taught all the children of this church for many years about the fireflies and how they are little lights of hope.”

“Yes,” Bobby continued, finally finding his voice, “You told us, Mrs. Peterson, that your father told you a long time ago that these little beacons of hope remind us that even the tiniest light in the darkness can make a difference in the world. And you told us over and over about Jesus as the Light of the World! But, Mrs. Peterson, you saw those fireflies so long ago that we wanted to remind you. And we hope we make a difference!”

By this time, tears were streaming down Murielle’s and Pastor Grace’s cheeks and everybody’s on the hillside, too, little drops of cold that ironically reminded them of the warmth they were all feeling.

It was at this point, that Jonathan Tingsley pressed the button on the little tape deck he was carrying and strains of “Silent Night” filled the air. During the musical introduction, Murielle heard the church door behind her open and close, saw Pastor Grace step aside, and felt two pairs of strong arms envelop her. “We came to see your fireflies, Mom,” Luke whispered lovingly in Murielle’s ear. “Pastor Grace called us,” whispered Matthew into the other as he kissed her.

With their little firefly lights still blinking, Murielle’s friends and family all sang a joyously tear-filled verse of “Silent Night”:

     Silent Night, Holy Night
     Son of God loves pure light.
     Radiant beams from Thy holy face
     With the dawn of redeeming Grace,
     Jesus, Lord at Thy birth,
     Jesus, Lord at Thy birth…
    

Everyone was reminded of another hillside a long time ago where shepherds heard the good news of a Savior born in Bethlehem. The stars came to earth that night and brought the light of the world to shine in all hearts everywhere, no matter how dark they would become because of loss and grief.

That night the benediction Pastor Grace gave had a new meaning, It was from the gospel of John:

“The light has come into the world, and the darkness has NOT overcome it!”

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