I know it is the ninth of June, but I want to tell you a Christmas story. It's a story remembered by a man named Brian Abel Ragen, a story told over and over by his father when he was growing up -- one of the few stories his father ever told. It is the kind of story that makes you wonder if you've heard it before somewhere. Perhaps your mother or father told it to you.
"Once upon a time there was a little boy who was very poor. He and his brothers and sisters lived with their widowed mother, who was barely able to feed them all. The little boy worked in a store every day after school and on weekends. All his clothes were handed down from someone and he couldn't remember ever getting anything new. He had only one toy -- a little car (I have always pictured it as a Matchbox car, Brian Ragen says, interrupting the story). The car was worn and weary as his clothes. Only one window was left and the roof was smashed in on one side, two of the wheels were missing. But he loved that car -- it could become anything he wanted when he played a race car revving it up and squealing around corners, a tank when he went to war, an ambulance when he was a doctor. Almost every happy moment he remembered had to do with that car.
It was almost Christmas and he knew there would be no presents. But the little boy was excited anyway. It was the first year he would be allowed to go to midnight mass on Christmas eve. Everyone had told him how splendid it was; the incense, the music, the fine vestments. And the creche. Above all, he longed to see the creche. He had been told that it was very large with plaster figures of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and magi, even sheep and sheep dogs. And the baby had a halo more glorious than Mary or Joseph and lay in a manger filled with real straw. Before mass began, people brought gifts to the child. He had been told the gifts were magnificent jeweled chalices for the altar, new clothes for poor children (like himself), envelopes full of money. By the time the service began it looked like many caravans of wise men had been there. At least, that's what his friend had said.
The little boy wanted very much to give the Christchild a present. But what could he give? The money from his after school job went to his mother and there was nothing left over. He decided to get another job just until Christmas, working every morning before school. On the afternoon of Christmas eve, he sat at the kitchen table counting out what he had earned. He had enough money to get a fine present, he thought. But before he could put the money back in his pocket and go out, his mother returned home. "Oh, son," she said, "what a good boy you are! Now we can have a real Christmas dinner!" And she swooped up the money and hurried off to get to the market before it closed.
He was heartbroken. He went to his room, trying not to be angry at his mother. When things like this happened, he was told to "Offer it up to Jesus." That was never easy, but it was worse this time. On the dresser he saw his broken toy car. He hadn't played with it at all in December, but it had been waiting for him. He knew it was the only thing he had to give the Child, so when he had combed his hair and dressed in his best clothes, he put the car in his pocket and set off for mass. He went alone because his mother had to stay with the younger children. When he arrived the church was filling up and he felt lost among tall adults in bulky coats. He walked up the aisle genuflected as he had been taught, and turned to the creche which was set up before one of the side altars. Gifts were already piled up before the child. Some were wrapped, others were left unwrapped (perhaps so you could see how expensive they were). The little boy stood shyly before the manger, then laid his toy car amid all the treasures.
He squeezed into a pew close to the creche just as the organ began playing the prelude. An usher took a last look at the creche to see if everything was in place for the blessing. What the usher saw made him very angry. "Who would leave a piece of trash like this at Our Lord's crib?" he said, loudly enough for the boy to hear. The usher picked up the toy car and threw it across the church, just under the tall pulpit. The little boy could see it, lying on its roof with its two wheels spinning, looking like a wreck indeed. But he had no time to retrieve it for the procession had begun and everyone stood to sing. The little boy was crying, but he stood with everyone else. He could barely see the priests and choir, only the cross held high above the procession. Suddenly, the cross came to a dead stop. At first the boy couldn't tell what was happening, but he managed to find an open space to peer between the grownups. The baby in the manger had come to life and was crawling across the stone floor. He crawled until he reached the broken car, tucked it under his arm and crawled back to his manger bed. By this time all the people had fallen to their knees. At last the priest rose and approached the manger; there, just as before, a plaster child with a bright halo was lying in the straw, but now he smiled like a happy child and his arms were folded tight around a broken toy car.
Brian Abel Ragen says that he cannot remember how he reacted to the story as a child. He suspected that his father told it as propaganda. Why can't you be a good little boy like the boy in the story? Or like his father who had to work hard delivering papers as a boy and walked five miles to school with a hot potato between his mittens to keep warm -- but walked home colder because he had to eat the potato for lunch. Whoever his father had been, he was now far from perfect. When he wasn't passed out drunk, he was a foul-mouthed terror. He took his son to mass every Sunday and to confession the afternoon before. But Ragen had no respect for him "I was afraid of him," he says, "and I despised him. I hated the idea that the ogre who darkened my life would be forgiven week after week."
But years later something changed. It wasn't that his father was transformed and everyone was reconciled in a tearful family reunion. Real life stories often end unresolved. "As I think of my father's Christmas story now," says the grown-up boy, "I realize that I cast him in the wrong role. My father was not the good little boy who gave his last plaything to the Lord. My father was the smashed Matchbox car with a couple of wheels missing. He had failed in his public life, and he knew that his family considered him an enemy. Whatever had happened in his life, it was enough to break him. He was a wreck. But despite -- or because of -- all this, he clearly longed to be cradled in his Savior's arms, to have Christ still seek him after he had been rejected by everyone else."
We don't know why Matthew, the tax collector, got up so abruptly to follow Jesus that day long ago. And we're not sure if the dinner which followed was at Matthew's house, but it seems likely -- for those who gathered around Jesus would have been Matthew's kind of people. "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" The religious leaders asked the disciples (Who would leave a piece of trash like this at our Lord's crib? asked the usher, eager for everything to be in good order).
Jesus was always in the wrong house, eating with the wrong people. It seems that He spent His public ministry crawling across the floor of history to tuck one wrecked life after another under His arm. "As Jesus was walking along He saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and Jesus said to him, 'Follow me.' And he got up and followed Him." Who can explain it? Matthew's decision was too sudden, clearly not thought out. Perhaps pastor/novelist Frederick Buechner was right when he said. "Faith is a word that describes the direction our feet start moving when we find that we are loved."
Matthew got up and followed. I suppose he could have waited until he knew more about Jesus. Maybe he should have waited until he felt better about himself. But, then I suppose, he'd still be there. "Faith," says Buechner, "is stepping out into the unknown with nothing to guide us but a hand just beyond our grasp." A hand that longs to touch all that is broken and failed, to gather up lives -- even successful lives -- which on some days seem like worthless trash.
Matthew could have waited until he was more certain, or more together. So could we -- but why miss a good dinner? I'm told that Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners today, with a friend, broken father and his grown-up son. You're more than welcome to come.