The young pastor stretched out his arms and said, “The Lord be with you,” and the parishioners replied, “And with your spirit.”

“Go in peace, the mass has ended,” Father Thomas proclaimed.

“Thanks be to God,” all replied.

With that, the nervous and handsome 28-year-old priest stretched out his arms again, wished all a holy and Merry Christmas and then dismissed his congregation.

Midnight mass is always a long ordeal. But somehow this year it was different, foreboding yet hopeful. Exhausted, the priest looked forward to catching a few winks and then preparing for one more Mass on Christmas morning. Then he could relax. Believing everyone had left after locking the church doors, he was surprised to see one more soul left still sitting in the pews.

As Father Thomas approached the motionless figure from behind he called out, “Excuse me, it’s time to go.” But the entity just sat there unresponsive. Respectfully trying not to scare his guest, Father Thomas was about to tap him on the shoulder when suddenly this charming apparition looked up silently, patted on the pew and begged lovingly with soulful blue eyes for the priest to sit beside him. Surrendering to his visitors’ speechless invitation, Father Thomas sat down in humble supplication, secretly grateful for the respite.   

The stranger looked like a modern version of old St. Nick, but 200 pounds thinner. Instead of a red and white suit, he was wearing white satin with red welts outlining his coat and the lapels and finally that famous black belt with the silver buckle — only smaller. He donned a matching white felt hat trimmed with a silver ribbon hatband around the crown and a matching small white feather tucked neatly underneath.

“Good evening Father Thomas, I’m Clarence.”

Taken aback that Clarence knew him by name, Father T. (as some parishioners call him) could not speak but only sink and immerse himself further into the heavenly blue eyes. For a split second though, he thought he saw two reflections at once: himself now and 50 years older.

Trying to dispel this disturbing vision, Father Thomas was about to speak when Clarence abruptly interrupted. “What do you see within these four walls of your sanctuary?” asked the man who clearly had been in church before.

Father Thomas politely replied, “I see empty pews of wood, an altar of marble, stained glass windows and vessels of gold.” Without thinking clearly, Father Thomas blurted out somewhat sarcastically, “And what do you see?”

“Please, indulge this old creature and tell me this first: What do you smell?” Father T., a bit annoyed, responded anyway. “Incense still lingering and rising to the ceiling.”

“Now, what do you hear?” Clarence pressed on. Keeping his composure, Father T. respectfully submitted, “Silence.”

“Forgive me Father Thomas if I ask again, what do you feel beneath your feet and hands when standing at the altar?” Now clearly agitated but still patient, Father T. said, “I feel hard cement, polished marble stone, and smooth silk vestments.”

Perhaps feeling somewhat unwelcomed by this dedicated servant of God, Clarence pleaded, “Your humble servant dares to ask you one last question before you possibly throw me out on to the street. What taste is left on your pallet right now?” Gritting his teeth along with a tightened jaw and stomach, Father Thomas replied, “Nothing!”

“All your answers are true, but incorrect,” Clarence retorted.

“So says you,” said the nonplussed pastor. “Listen I’m…..” But before Father T. could complete his sentence, his interrogator got up and started walking toward the staircase that leads up the bell tower.

“Excuse me, but you can’t go up there,” Father Thomas informed him. “Besides, it’s all locked up,” he said as he rattled the gate to show proof. But to his surprise, the gate was unlocked and open.

Clarence glided past Father T. with a boyish smirk and ascended the stairs with Father T. following like a dazed puppy. They climbed to the top of the tower.

“OK now,” Father Thomas said sternly. “what is this all about and what do you want?”

“Want? I want nothing. Rather I’m here to remind you that Christmas isn’t just about pompous ceremony but a remembrance of something greater,” Clarence declared.

Clarence then motioned to Father Thomas to stand beside him and  pointed toward the east, which was just beginning to show a wisp of light. But a weary and miffed Father T. would have none of it.

“Look, I’m sick of your interrogation, and furthermore what do all these questions about what I see and feel and hear have to do with me, much less with Christmas?”

Clarence seemed to have been waiting for this moment. 

“Fair enough,” he said. Gently turning Father T. around again toward the now golden celestial event, Clarence said firmly, “Look — focus on the horizon once more. Unlike you who might see a rising sun or a sanctuary built by man of stone and wood, I see an immense galactic cathedral built by God and lit by his unfailing light. As I close my eyes, I smell the sweet fragrance of God’s mercy coming from below, not incense. What I hear is not silence, but God whispering in my ear to love him and love one another. When I reach out, I feel not only the breath of dawn’s soothing breeze but I’m also touching the face of my creator — your creator. Finally, I taste not what man has made or provides at the table, but I savor the Lord’s sweet divinity and hunger for his presence in every pore of my body and soul.”

Clarence, with his hands still resting on the priest’s shoulders, continued to make his point while maneuvering both of them around so that the sunrise was now deflecting off of Clarence’s back. Deliberately, Clarence shuffled backward to the window ledge, and purposely tumbled out of the bell tower.

Instinct kicked in and Father Thomas grabbed Clarence’s coat lapel and hung on for dear life without any thought for his own safety. Unfortunately, Father T. lost his grip when Clarence’s lapel tore way. They both plunged towards terra firma. Their demise was inevitable. But Mother Nature wasn’t ready to embrace him or Clarence — at least not yet.  

The next thing Father Thomas knew, someone was shaking him violently. This is no way to treat the injured, he thought.

“Wake up Father T! Wake up!” Dazed and confused, how could he be alive right now? How could he have escaped the clutches of death, awake unharmed, all his vestments still on not bloody, fully refreshed, and ready to say Christmas Mass?

“Where is Clarence? Is he OK too?” Father T. demanded.

The voice answered back bewildered but compassionate. “Clarence —Clarence who?”

Woozy but still coherent, was it all just a dream Father T. had after sitting down next to his demanding teacher?

After standing up from the pew and wiping away the sleep from his eyes, Father T. started to walk away. The gentle voice spoke again, “Father T., wait. You dropped something.”

“This envelope is addressed to you,” the friendly voice said.

Still blurry-eyed, Father Thomas could barely make out these words on the front of the packet: “To Father T. Merry Christmas and never forget — Clarence.”

Something was poking through the thin covering. Upon opening his present, Father T. found a white feather, a piece of straw, a small strand of red piping, a sliver of wood and a rusty red nail. As he walked toward the altar, he tucked the envelope under his vestments wondering what they all meant.

When it came time for Father Thomas to begin his homily, he looked down at his prepared notes and put them aside. Instead, he pulled out the mysterious envelope.

He’d had an epiphany and knew the meaning of the five symbols. He knew what sermon he had to give that Christmas Day, and every other Christmas for the next 50 years.

Secretly to himself, Father T. thanked Clarence, and continued with: “My brother and sisters in Christ. Instead of my usually long and maybe boring Christmas sermon, I want to tell you story about a priest I know. It begins like this: ‘The young pastor stretched out his arms and said, “The Lord be with you ...”

Tresselle lives in Roseburg.