When Robert was a little child he woke up each Christmas morning to find a stocking for him. It wasn’t at the end of his bed. His bedroom was cold as frost in December – whatever the weather outside. So Robert’s benefactor ensured that the stocking would be received in a climate of warmth. It is not true to say that the joy of receiving it would have counteracted the iciness of the room. The child would still have shivered as he delved into the woollen sock, hopeful, grateful and mindful of the reason for the season.
Robert found his stocking each December 25th, by the living room – also kitchen – fire, hung from a cup hook which normally held his father’s ale beaker. And each December 25th, Robert would find, at the bottom of the sock, an orange. There are many places in the world where oranges are grown today, places like Florida, Brazil, Spain, South Africa and Israel, but Robert knew just where his orange had come from. He also knew that if he took it through the garden, opened the gate and let it roll down Rose Hill, it would roll and roll through the village, along the roads and past the towns until it came to the port. When it reached the port it would find a small place to settle and take a ride on a boat until it was off-loaded at another port. The orange, by some magical means, would eventually roll into a little town named Bethlehem. Robert knew that the first orange in Bethlehem was taken there by a priest. Some people would have him named Caspar or Melchior or Balthasar. The priest was skilled in astrology and was able to interpret dreams. He, with other priests with the same training, followed a star which had special meaning. They were unable to follow the star any further than Bethlehem. It was there that the priests, known as The Magi, worshipped a small baby. They had with them some special gifts – they had gold for a king, they had incense for the Son of God, they had myrrh to denote a life of suffering – and they had oranges.
Oranges were generally grown in China and in southeast Asia at the time of Christ’s nativity, but clever people like The Magi would have been able to grow orange trees by budding.
Robert would hold his orange in his small hand, where it fitted like a jigsaw puzzle piece, and he would imagine the Christ Child holding his own orange, like a globe. As he grew older, Robert still received an orange for Christmas and he still remembered the Christ Child with the world in his hands. He started to question the magic of Christmas. It unsettled him. He was intelligent so he attempted to work out the answers to the questions which confused him. Questions are one thing but finding answers is quite something else.
Years later when Robert was working in Edinburgh – a well respected geneticist – he made his preparations one Christmas season. He took off some time so that he could spend it with family and friends. But one evening he was completely alone. He sat in his favourite armchair with some cheese, a few biscuits and an orange. The fire glow was his light. Robert held the orange in his right hand, passed it from there to his left and back again. The carpet of years was rolled back and he saw the bare boards of his life. He closed his eyes and saw smiling faces he had loved. He began to pray for them – that they might rest in peace. He opened his eyes and the firelight made him close them again. Then his memory settled on an image of the Christ Child holding an orb of orange. The baby made no sound, no gesture – it simply unlocked a spirituality which Robert had packed away long ago. He now knew that no matter how many letters came after his name, or how many honours might go before it, his human understanding could not limit God. He knew too that God’s mystery is beyond every human being. Robert had, that evening, reawakened an openness to receive God on His terms.
There is no end to an orange. It rolls round and round in your hand. It came from an evergreen tree – not gigantically tall – but with deep green and glossy leaves and white fragrant flowers. The tree will last a lifetime – longer.