Christmas Day 2015
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
There’s a man named Peter Mattaliano who lives on W. 50th Street in Manhattan, in an area called Hell’s Kitchen. For the past 15 years, Mr. Mattaliano has put presents on his mantelpiece for two children who lived in his apartment 100 years ago. He’s not nuts. But he is quite taken with those children he never met….
Here’s the story, as reported in the paper the other day.1 15 years ago Mr. Mattaliano asked his brother, skilled in construction, to open up the fireplace. They kidded that maybe they’d find Al Capone’s money. They actually found something far more valuable: two letters to Santa, written by Alfred and Mary McGann, the children of Irish immigrants Patrick and Esther McGann. The letters are fragile, a little charred, but still legible. Little Alfred wrote:
“I want a drum and a hook and ladder.”
He specified that he would like the fire truck to have an “extentionisting” ladder.
Mary was 3 years older than Alfred. She wrote:
Dear Santa Claus: I am very glad that you are coming around tonight. My little brother would like you to bring him a wagon which I know you cannot afford. I will ask you to bring him whatever you think best. Please bring me something nice what you think best.
She signed the letter and added:
P.S. Please do not forget the poor.
Mr. Mattaliano did some research in NYC archives and found out that the children’s father died in 1904. He believes the children wrote the letters after their mother, a dressmaker, had become a widow. We can make an educated guess that Mary knew things were tight, since she assumed even Santa wouldn’t be able to “afford” the wagon her brother was hoping for. Her wisdom-beyond-her-years and compassionate heart for those who had less than she and her brother and mother, so touched Mr. Mattaliano’s heart that he framed the letters, hung them over his mantelpiece, and now sets out presents for Mary and Alfred each year.
I read a devotion by Dorothy Day recently that talks about how people think they would have acted if they’d only been in Bethlehem when Mary & Joseph were shut out of lodging and the Baby was born in the company of farm animals. “If I’d only been there, I would have….” She writes:
It is no use saying that we are born two thousand years too late to give room to Christ. Nor will those who live at the end of the world have been born too late. Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts.
But now it is with the voice of our contemporaries that he speaks, with the eyes of store clerks, factory workers, and children that he gazes; with the hands of office workers, slum dwellers, and suburban housewives that he gives. It is with the feet of soldiers and tramps that he walks, and with the heart of anyone in need that he longs for shelter. And giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving it to Christ.2
The author reminds us that we haven’t missed our golden opportunity to give the Holy Family shelter for there are still far too many families without safe homes or any homes. We help some of those families through Family Promise, our ministry to the temporarily homeless. Last winter we also helped out a family with an infant, so they would not have to sleep in the car in freezing and sub-freezing temperatures.
The prologue to St. John’s Gospel, our Christmas Day Scripture, doesn’t mention Bethlehem, no-room-in-the-inn, shepherds, or a Birth in the barn. Mary & Joseph don’t enter the picture at all. St. John is seeing things from a poet’s and from a God’s eye view. It’s like St. Matthew and St. Luke were looking through binoculars at Christ’s birth and St. John was peering through the Hubble telescope.
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being…
10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
They didn’t recognize Him. They thought he’d come in power, but he came in powerlessness. They thought He’d be a military leader, but He came as the Prince of Peace. They thought He’d seize the kingdom of Israel back from the Romans but what He did was announce the coming of the kingdom of God among them.
We often don’t recognize Him either. If we truly saw behind Christ’s many masks, there would be far less suffering in the world. Mother Teresa spoke of our Lord Jesus’ “most distressing disguise of the poor.” This is certainly what the Babe of Bethlehem grew up to teach about in the parable of the sheep and the goats:
“ 34…’Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:34-40)
Jesus still appears today, but He doesn’t look like He used to! Sometimes He looks like a bag lady on a city sidewalk, sometimes like the frightened, lost child you stumble across in a department store, sometimes like the teen, senior citizen, or anybody else standing panicked on the side of the road after an accident, as we approach and decide whether we have time or not to stop. Sometimes He stares at us from the front page of the paper, in a picture of a far-off place where people’s suffering from natural disaster or war clamors for our attention. Many days He looks just like you and me, and always He resembles the last person we met who was in any need.
At the end of A Christmas Carol an enlightened Ebenezer Scrooge vows, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” How can we pull that off? St. John tells us:
…to all who [receive] him, who [believe] in his name, he [gives] power to become the children of God.... (John 1:12)
We know that the Word who became flesh and “pitched His tent among us” once, still does. We honor Him by serving the beloved for whom He lived and died and rose again.
I hope someone recognized the Christ Child in Alfred and Mary McGann, helped their mother make Christmas wishes come true and just as importantly served as earth angels for them the rest of the year. We can do the same for other children. We can do the same for the Christ Child, whose presence blesses us in Word and Sacrament and in the last, the lost and the least who most closely resemble Him. Amen
1Corey Kilgannon, “Poignant Notes to Santa, Lost For a Century,” The New York Times, December 22, 2015, A1, A25.
2Dorothy Day, “Room for Christ,” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent & Christmas (Plough Publishing, 2001), pp. 176.
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham