When I was a boy, our family owned a small dry‑goods store in the west end of Cincinnati. It was a hospitable, happy place, where neighborhood folks laughed and cried together. People bought merchandise there, knowing that all ‑ including poor African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and Caucasian people ‑ were welcome.
One Christmas stands out above the rest. In early December, a delegation from the black Holiness Church came into the store and asked for my father. I knew this was no ordinary meeting, because Dad listened with a worried smile. When they left, he proudly told me they invited him to preach the Christmas sermon at their church. “Dad,” I asked, “what did you tell them?” He replied that he wanted to talk it over with Mom before giving them an answer.
I sensed what his decision would be ‑ that the only sermon he could preach was in the store. The following Thursday, he confirmed my suspicions. Up the street he went to tell the church members that he couldn’t do it. He returned shortly, hoping they understood him.
Two weeks passed, and it was the day before Christmas. Right before noon, Dad found out how well the people understood him. The church people came into the store carrying chicken dinners. Dad was overjoyed. As he thanked them, we gathered around the potbellied stove. Dad threw in several large lumps of coal. The warmth of Christmas Eve melted the chill in the store, as everyone laughed, reminisced, and ate their chicken.
Before the church people left, Dad picked out a very nice selection of gifts, clothes, and household items for the church’s poor who might not receive much on Christmas Day. As the coal turned to ashes, the black and white brothers and sisters, who exchanged best wishes for peace, joy, and goodwill around the old potbellied stove, preached the real Christmas sermon.
The old store and church are gone now, but memories live on. Whenever I drive past the spot where the store once stood, I remember the special Christmas that taught me the real reason for Jesus’ birth.
The Christmas experience in my father’s store, a symbol of God’s love as demonstrated in Jesus’ birth, helped me appreciate why Jesus was born in simplicity in the midst of poverty, uncertainty, and struggle. Jesus’ birth, a paradigm of family life, shows how God’s love can overcome human obstacles and bring new life. In recalling past Christmases, the only sermon I remember is the one preached in my family’s store. In the old store, I first learned the real meaning of Jesus’ birth.
This story is my most cherished Christmas memory. In this season, we recall joyous and difficult times. The story brings back happy memories of growing up, the crib, Christmas Mass, and exchanging presents. For Christians, it holds special spiritual meaning, centering on a two-thousand-year-old event. We celebrate Christmas, because God loved us and sent Jesus to teach us how to live and how to die.
My story connects with Jesus’ birth in a Bethlehem cave. Our old dry goods store was that cave for us, as we exchanged greetings of peace and joy, akin to the sentiments found in the angels’ song on the first Christmas. This story reminds me of why Jesus came, lived among us, and died. It reminds me of the in-between time from birth to death, when we work out our salvation.
During the Christmas Season, we concentrate on this in-between time, when we now live. As I grew up, much in-between time took place in the dry goods store. Here, I helped my father earn income to support our family. During these years, I learned important values that lasted through life.
What are these values? They focus on what Jesus taught us is necessary to enter the kingdom of God, namely love and service to the poor. To learn the virtue of Christian service, I looked to my father, who ministered to the poor coming into the store, often giving them merchandise and helping them in other ways. He lived out what Luke’s gospel recounts in Chapter 13, as Jesus made his way to Jerusalem to accomplish his mission. Here, Jesus connects entering the kingdom of God through a narrow gate to the bent over woman healed by him.
In this story, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, when a woman crippled for eighteen years approached him and asked to be cured. Luke says, “She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.” (13:11) After Jesus called for her, she approached him. He healed her from her handicap; she stood up straight, and praised him. When this happened, the leader of the synagogue upbraided Jesus and accused him of violating the Sabbath rest. Jesus responded, called the synagogue leader a hypocrite, and related acts of kindness to the poor with the Kingdom of God.
After this episode, Jesus went to other towns and villages, preaching God’s kingdom of love, peace, and forgiveness. During this journey to Jerusalem where he was to accomplish his mission, Jesus was asked, “who can be saved?” He replied, “Strive to enter through the narrow door…” (13:24)
How does the story of the bent over woman relate to entering the God’s kingdom through the narrow door? Is there a connection, also, to Jesus’ birth, his death, and my Christmas story? It’s no accident that Luke included in Chapter 13 the healing of the bent over woman and entering the kingdom through the narrow door. In so doing, he tells us that if we wish to enter through the narrow door, we must reach out to the bent over people in our homes, work, and neighborhood, as my father did.
Who are bent over people today? We begin in our families with relatives, bent over by divorce, loss of job, poverty, sickness, and death. Which of our friends are bent over by a child on drugs, an unfaithful spouse, or conflict with a parent or sibling? Which colleagues at work are bent over by a boring job, necessary to support a family or a troublesome boss? How many in our home, neighborhood, church, or workplace are bent over by pressures and worries that depress and bog them down? How are we bent over? Jesus was born in such a bent over condition, suffered, died on the cross, and remains with us to support us when we are the same way.
Jesus closely associates entering the kingdom of God with being bent over. When bent over or broken, we come to better appreciate God’s love. Our brokenness, accepted in a spirit of faith, trust, and hope, invites us to enter the kingdom of God. The upright and strong, who reach out to bent over people, are invited to accompany them into God’s kingdom. They are our gateway.
The poor who brought us chicken dinners the day before Christmas remind us of who we are called to be as church leaders. Their example teaches us how to live during the in-between time of life.
The lessons from the story
Every person derives different insights from a story. The following are offered as starting points for deeper reflections.
Joy and Hospitality
From earliest childhood, I looked forward to working in the store. My work there was not so much a job as the beginning of a call to service. Although not realizing it at the time, the joy and hospitality in the store created this same spirit within me. Customers coming through the small front door felt it. We treated those entering the store as guests and considered their visits as a blessing.
Soon, I realized that the customers felt the same way. My father helped them with their gas and electric bills, gave them credit when short of money, lowered the price for larger items, and put away purchases to be paid off twenty-five cents a week throughout the year. We never argued with customers and treated them as if they were always right. We knew most of them, few of whom were Catholic, and communicated with them as brothers and sisters in Christ, long before the era of ecumenism in the Catholic Church.
This lesson of hospitality carried into my adult life. In particular, it serves me well as a church leader. When we treat those coming into our parishes as guests, it makes a tremendous difference. The same applies to our attitude toward children, youth, and young adults. When Catholic parishes create the kind of welcome that we felt in the store, it changes the environment and sets the groundwork for effective evangelization.
Preach the Christmas Sermon
I will never realize how this invitation honored my father, yet greatly disturbed him. It was the most honored thing that this small community could bestow on my Dad to say thanks for his numerous donations of merchandise, I do not doubt that my father could have given a fine sermon at their church. Why, then, did he refuse?
It was precisely because of his commitment to the Catholic faith. Before Vatican II, Catholics were forbidden to take part at any non-Catholic ceremony, even the wedding of a relative, without permission of the priest. My father would never ask a priest for permission to give a sermon at a Protestant church, so he felt obliged to decline the invitation.
This act worried him, fearing the loss of their friendship and business. He needed both to maintain a vibrant store. Yet, he risked their support to remain faithful to Church laws of the time.
Dad internalized what it meant to be a Catholic. It was a way of life with joys and sacrifices associated with being a Catholic. Everyone coming into the store regularly knew he was Catholic and they respected him for it. What a lesson for today’s Catholics!
In today’s complex society, Catholic identity is a critical piece. If Catholics know who they are and what they are called to be, it is easier to sort out their obligations to live the Catholic lifestyle. Then, the supermarket mentality of many Catholics fades into the background and the beautiful Catholic way of life, centered on deep and unchanging values, comes to the fore. Parents and church leaders are challenged to help create the sense of Catholic identity and certitude in the minds and hearts of those they serve.
Brought Chicken Dinners
Why was his such a treat? Often, Dad and Mom made chicken on the grill or in the oven at home. The chicken was very good. When I started to make deliveries for our store, I experienced something different. Since we served the immediate neighborhood, I walked to people’s homes to deliver most packages. As I walked down Poplar and Linn Streets, I often saw African-Americans grilling chicken and brats in their small yards in the front or on the side of their houses. As a wonderful aroma wafted from the sizzling chicken, I often wished someone would offer me some. But it never happened, until that day in the store, when our friends from the small church brought us chicken dinners.
It was the best gift they could offer us. They knew this and so did we. It was a tremendous symbol, which indicated, “We understand, Mr. Hater, and want to say thanks in the next best way we can after asking you to deliver the Christmas sermon by giving you this chicken.”
As I think back on this experience, I remember how often we give superficial gifts to people, even those we love. How often are they deep symbols of our love? We might ask ourselves this Christmas what symbolic expression can we give to those whom we love the most that tell them that we care? What gift can we give church colleagues telling them the same thing? Christmas is the time has come for us to put aside the secularity and busyness of our lives and remember the real significance of a gift that touches the heart.
Gift of Merchandise
I remember the joy on my father's face as he walked though the store picking our nice Christmas gifts for the church’ poor. His gifts symbolized his happiness for their understanding of him. It really didn’t make a difference that his gifts to them represented money we would have made that day. At that moment, money took a back seat to care, understanding, and love. Dad gave them the best thing he had – his merchandise. This symbolized what kept our family going, even during the Great Depression. His gift paralleled the best gift of chicken dinners that the small church could give him.
As I reflected on the mutual gift giving that happened that day, I thought of how shallow are many of our gifts. Often, they do not represent the best of what we are. How many times, instead, they represent something obtained in a hurry, so we might have something to give a loved one.
On this Christmas, consider our attitude to gift giving, as we meditate on the greatest gift of all – Jesus, the Son of God, who the Father gave us to show us the depths of God’s love.
All of us have memories, some joyous, others sad. These memories tell the story of our lives. Christmas is a time to consider our great blessings. To do so, we need to make time for reflection and ask what is really important in life. To do so, we look into our past to loved ones who sacrificed so much, that we might enjoy the blessings of being an American and a Catholic.