The Christmas Story

Sister Mary Grace taught sixth grade at Christ the King School in Yonkers, N.Y., when she felt like it. Which wasn’t often. The rest of the time she told stories.

We aided and abetted. If she pulled out the arithmetic workbook, someone would ask, “Sister, is it easier being a kid today than when you were a kid?”

Being a sister, she would answer that she was never a “kid” because a kid is a goat. “But when I was a child ...” We would lean forward in our desks, trying to get closer to the campfire.

She refused to tell Christmas stories. “There is only one Christmas story,” she said. But in a lot of ways, most of her stories were Christmas stories. They always seemed to begin with a “fallen-away” Catholic.

“There was a fallen-away Catholic who was a successful businessman. But he lived for himself and by himself. He was at the station on Friday waiting to catch his train home when another fellow came up beside him.

“‘What are you going to do now?’ the fellow asked the businessman.

“‘I’m going home. What’s it to you?’ he answered.

“‘You sure about that?’ the fellow said, and then pointed to the ground.

“And the businessman saw with horror that a body had collapsed right then and there. The body was his,” she told us.

Sister loved that kind of stuff and we were in hook, line and sinker.

“And he guided the businessman to a building that looked just like your school,” she said, “but with millions of classrooms, each representing one person. In the rooms were candles lit for good deeds. Some rooms were so bright that the businessman had to shade his eyes. But then they came to a room that had only one small candle. That was the businessman’s room.

“That candle was lit when the businessman had felt sorry for a cold, lonely child trying to sell newspapers,” Sister said. “The businessman had given the child a $10 dollar bill for all his papers. It was the only good act of his life. But the little boy had said a prayer of thanks and this was God’s response.

“The businessman said that if he could just get another chance, he would fill that room with candles. The next thing he knew, he was back at the station and the train was pulling up. He hadn’t collapsed after all and only a second had gone by. But the man who had guided him to see his one lit candle was nowhere to be seen.”

She then paused for dramatic effect. “And Saturday, he went to confession. Sunday he went back to Mass. Monday, he began to feed the hungry.”

A hand shot up in back of class. “Who was the businessman’s guide?”

“I’m not sure,” she said, “but I think his name was Joseph.”

Sister always had the best punch lines.

’Tis the season to be cynical. There is so much Christmas mush that has little or nothing to do with the Christmas story. Lifetime Movie Network has more than 50 Christmas movies to broadcast, everything from “Single Santa Meets Mrs. Claus” to “Love at the Christmas Table.” Watch all that sugar and your teeth will rot. But then get down to the nub:

“The Christian faith can never be separated from the soil of sacred events, from the choice made by God, who wanted to speak to us, to become man, to die and rise again, in a particular place and at a particular time,” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in “The Spirit of the Liturgy” (Ignatius, $21.95).

That’s Christmas. And that’s the story that begins the second chapter of Luke: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled ... ”

The only Christmas story.

Have a joyful, peaceful and hopeful Christmas!

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.