Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: December 1, 1997
With the Christmas season upon us, I find myself thinking of Christians, oddly enough. My mind wanders back to the Christmas of ‘95, when I found myself on the eve of Christmas, hitching through Switzerland with a girl I’d met the week before. We went to see her mother, who was otherwise alone. We were hitching back to Zurich around midnight — Christmas day was on our doorsteps, traffic was understandably light, a very slight rain in the air. As they say, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse . . . but a car once in a while all the same, and we got our ride home after a pleasant midnight walk along the quiet roadside wondering if it would ever arrive and if we could walk back to Zurich this year. A strange way to spend Christmas perhaps but, oddly enough, one of the warmer Christmas experiences I have.
You see, I was in Switzerland, alone with no family and not many friends. It’s then that Christmas shows its slightly darker face. You can walk the streets of Zurich late on Christmas Eve and you will see one distant foreigner after another, Africans, Middle Easterners, South Americans, most of them alone, just strolling around. There are a few Westerners as well, most of them probably Americans, Australians like me or Europeans with no family to go to. The Swiss, of course, are all at home with their families, including any friends you may have made while here. Ironically, many of them are probably spending their time bickering among themselves, it being the one time of the year they all come together and rub noses.
I’m not meaning to disparage the spirit of Christmas, by no means. The message of Christ, the message of Love, is one I’d hold up high any time of year. But it has a way of rubbing my nose in the failures of the Christian movement all the same. I can almost see Christ’s message lurking somewhere in the shadow of the church and our self-congratulating culture but, out on the streets, where it counts, we have a blind eye.
This is part of why I hitch-hike still. I’m not poor, I’m not down and out, I’m not even lonely much, but a part of me won’t let those things go. There is a very genuine side to people who know these things well, and a kind of blind eye and hypocrisy that creeps up on the comfortable middle class. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an old hypocrite myself, just one that likes to keep his eyes open to it I guess, in the hope of kicking it down within myself.
The Easter of ‘96 delivered a similarly pungent message as to the hollow message that I see echoing around within our churches (and Europe has some mighty grand churches for echoing). I had hitched from Bern into Italy, past Trento to some small town, not far from my goal (an Easter festival full of genuinely heart warming folk, where I was destined in fact to meet the girl I most cherish today). It was late at night on Good Friday, not a bad time to be thinking of love, and I found myself standing on a road in front of a church. One of those lovely big European stone buildings dating back centuries. There was next to no traffic on the road and Santa Orsola Terme (my goal for the night) still too far up the valley for me to imagine a comfortable hike.
Evidently there was a mass going on, because not long after my arrival, people issued from that church en masse. I was clearly visible, the night was bright, the traffic was slow, but one car after another drove by me, not batting an eyelid at my thumb and sign, until the car park was empty and all those Christians snug in their beds, a good few of them in Santa Orsola Terme I am sure.
No traffic on the road I decided to start the hike with my sign strapped to my back and a lame thumb to wave at the odd car that might pass by. Some time later, some way up the road, a car pulls over, a young man form Santa Orsola Terme, heading home from the night. I got there just before midnight, to a very warm welcome, and all the attention and caring that the Christians had failed to extend.
I am no Christian, you may have guessed, but Christ had a message all the same, one that I cherish very dearly, and one that Christmas should remind us of. A message of caring for one another, one of love and compassion; all of these things begin with trust. That Christmas should serve also to remind some of us of our collective failure to live up to that message is probably a good thing. I’d like to think that by sharing a look through the eyes of the roadside traveller you might think a little about trust and sharing and the role they play in our lives, and society as well. For that I thank Christ.