His name is Tony, he runs a variety store north of the fair grounds. Opens at 7 am and closes at 10 pm. He is the sole employee. Tony and his beloved came to Canada more than 30 years ago when following the Christian faith in his homeland became an invitation to violence and ridicule. He found it rather ironic that in recent years he oft had to clean the words “Muslim go home.” from his store window and walls. It was a strange juxtaposition that the faith of his childhood cost him his homeland, while a faith he doesn’t follow is the pain in his new land. Oh, by the way, his name isn’t really Tony. Nobody could pronounce his real name properly. One day a customer told him he looked like a singer named Tony Bennett and the name stuck. He still has never listened to or seen anything by Tony Bennett.
Tony’s life suffered a tremendous blow just ten years ago. His beloved was diagnosed with cancer in the spring and was gone by fall. Despite the passage of time, his heart still aches.
17 hour work days are filled with memories of when his beloved worked at his side. It is the relationship with customers that keeps him going. While nothing could come near to his God or his beloved, being able to interact with people who were lonely, hungry, out of step with the world gave his life meaning. The area around his store was a neighbourhood filled with trouble, but as he knew better than most, it was also filled with good people who simply needed a listening ear and a caring heart. His days were full of conversations, some laughter, some tears and plenty of hugs. He was known as a man with a heart and most were aware of the stockpile of daily needs that Tony kept for those in crisis.
It was approaching the bittersweet Christmas season. Joyous because it was the birth of his Saviour. Sad because he no longer had the love of his life at his side. One night, as the first snow fall of December redecorated the dull gray landscape with a cloak of white, Tony woke with a start from a dead sleep. Was it true? He had heard the voice of Jesus telling him that come Christmas Eve, Jesus would come to visit. While he tried to tell himself it was just a dream, Tony knew that he had heard the voice of the Lord. His mind whirred near out of control. Was this visit to take him home, to be with his beloved? Was this to be a real, in person visit? Both seemed enticing. Yes Jesus had said before midnight Christmas Eve, Tony would have a visit from the Babe born in the manger.
The days went by agonizingly slow. Tony, not one for house work, scrubbed the tiny apartment above the store, and then scrubbed it again. If Jesus was to visit, He would find Tony at his best. Christmas Eve was one of Tony’s big money making nights. People going to church, people off to a party, to family. Police officers and others who had to work. It was always a steady stream of people making his cash register hum, ‘til precisely 11 pm when Tony hurriedly closed the store and raced to the midnight celebration of Jesus birth. But this year, Tony didn’t think twice. He put a huge sign in the window “Closed at 6 pm Christmas Eve.”
Morning turned to afternoon and many remarked how great Tony looked in a suit and tie, but they couldn’t for the life of them figure out why he didn’t have on his trade mark jeans, plaid shirt and sandals. He just smiled when people asked if he was expecting someone special!
It was 5:55 pm when Tony strolled to the door to lock up. It had gone quiet and he didn’t think five minutes would bring any more customers. He turned the lock and a rush of anticipation coursed through him as he imagined his coming guest. His finger was on the light switch when a loud knock blasted from the front of the store. He would ignore it, they would go away. But more insistent came a second round and Tony peeked to see who it was. A young man, gruff and dirty. He had seen this many times. Oft it was someone passing through that heard that Tony had a caring heart. But there were times it meant trouble. Tony tried to ignore the knocking, but his heart wouldn’t let him. He walked briskly to the door and turned the lock. The young man said he hadn’t eaten in a while. He was fidgeting and pawing the ground with his foot. Nerves or problems? Tony wasn’t sure which. Tony said he could spare a little food and motioned the young man in. As he came into view, Tony could see a hole the size of a toonie in one of his boots and there were was no sock in sight. His pants were full of holes and what he wore as a coat, was just a shirt and not a heavy one at all. No hat! No mitts! Tony suggested he sit down and he scurried to the back, returning with three sandwiches and a carton of milk. He pulled a coat and boots from a box in the corner of the store and added a hat and gloves from a shelf nearby. Tony scooped half a dozen chocolate bars and tucked them into the coat pocket, before wishing the young man Merry Christmas and watching a smile crease his face as he walked out the door. Tony took the stairs to the apartment three at a time so he wouldn’t miss his visitor. The apartment was silent, save the ticking of the big clock. Tony turned on his favorite CD of carols. Who’d have believed that he, Tony, had become a country music fan and it was Alan Jackson that crooned from the speakers.
It had just gone 9, when the doorbell rang. Not many knew where to find the bell for the apartment, so Tony knew it was someone who knew him. Could it be . . . the thought trailed away as Tony recognized Jeff’s face at the door. Three years ago, the first time they had met, Jeff had pulled a knife in Tony’s store and cleaned out the cash drawer. Cursing and swearing he bashed most of the store shelves, sending product everywhere. He broke the glass in the front door as he raced in a drug fueled stupor into the night. The next day Jeff returned, with a sheepish look to apologize. He had a love hate relationship with drugs, and last night he had fallen into the abyss once again. They talked. Tony listened. Jeff cried. They agreed the police would be summoned and Jeff would admit his crime. When the case went to trial, it was Tony who appeared as a character witness for Jeff. He was making restitution and pledged to repay Tony for everything. Still, he got a year in jail and Tony visited every week. Through his pastor, Tony found an addictions counselor, who at Tony’s behest and nothing more, agreed to work with Jeff while he was inside. At year’s end, Jeff went straight from jail to rehab and he had been clean and sober for more than a year. Tonight, Jeff was abuzz. His estranged wife had agreed Jeff could see his now six year old daughter for the first time since she was a toddler. But Jeff’s joy was tempered by the fact that it would take every nickle he had for cab fare. He would have nothing to give his daughter. Tony and Jeff went downstairs together and Tony filled the biggest plastic bag he had with one of every Christmas candy he had in the store. A beaming Jeff was about to head out the door, when it came to Tony. The dolls, give him the dolls. When Tony and his wife arrived in Canada, she became enchanted with Barbie dolls. Dirt poor growing up she had never owned a doll and because they had never been given the gift of a child, there was no reason for dolls. But for some reason, Barbie brought great joy to Tony’s beloved, so each Christmas they bought a new doll together and imagined what it would be like if their daughter had found the gift under the tree. 18 dolls, still in the boxes, were pulled from the closet upstairs and placed lovingly in a bag for Jeff to take lovingly to his little girl. As he whistled out the door calling “God is good, all the time!” Tony smiled and headed upstairs hoping his guest was still on route.
It was just past 11 when he heard a screeching noise outside. He knew immediately it was Josie. She had lived a hard life and was now in the early stages of dementia. Her family were ashamed to call her mom given the blue hair and the outrageous clothes. They spent as little time at her tiny home down the street as possible. Josie had told Tony early in the week that her daughters wanted to come for Christmas, but just couldn’t get away. Tony knew that wasn’t true. When Josie tipped a couple in sadness, she would almost always decide to go for a walk and find herself unable to remember how to get home. He scanned the lawn below and he saw Josie’s walker stuck in the snowbank and she was sprawled on the lawn sobbing. He ran down the stairs and collected her up, freed the walker and gently took her the two blocks to her home. Josie was insistent that Tony should come in for tea. She collapsed on a chair and it was up to Tony to brew the tea. They talked for an extended period until Tony was certain she would be okay. He walked home knowing that sadly, he was too late. It was ten minutes past two in the morning when Tony arrived home and the tears were unleashed. His visit wouldn’t happen. Perhaps it was never even real. Perhaps he had dreamed it all up. Perhaps Jesus had come by and thought Tony didn’t care enough to be home. Tony knew it was irrational, but the pain was real and his spirit had been pierced.
He fell into a fitful sleep and suddenly there was his Lord standing at his bedside. Immediately Tony tried to make excuses for missing the planned visit. Jesus spoke in quiet tones. “Tony, my beloved. Three times this night I came to you in need. I was hungry and cold and you fed and warmed me; I was broken hearted and you made things right, I was lost and alone and you brought me home and comforted me.” With that, Jesus smiled and left Tony with tears of joy streaming down his cheeks.
I have updated this from a story called the Christmas Guest first published in the 1940’s. The first time I heard it was from Grand Ol Opry member – Grandpa Jones. The story has been cuddled in my heart ever since.
It reminds us on this Christmas Eve that God loves each and every child that God has created. God wishes all of us to know love and honour and respect on this most precious day.
Now, I am no Grinch. I’m all for presents and food and family gatherings. I’m hoping there is a little something under the tree for me. I can be certain that my brother in law will lay out a grand feast for me on Boxing Day. I know that my family will be together to celebrate. But we are also called to understand that many amongst us in this city will have no presents, no family, no food and only the sorrow that is their everyday life will consume their Christmas. If we do not stop tonight to contemplate what we can do to help those people, in Jesus name, we will have missed the point of His coming.
Have you ever thought about the cast of characters in the Gospel tellings of Jesus birth. Lowly, dirty, despised shepherds. They were oft the outcasts of society who found solace and safety in the hills with the sheep, who didn’t judge them. Wise men. Obviously rich, well to do, of class and culture. And most likely not of the religion of Jesus family. A despot King who was determined to cling to power and control and his palatial life style. And lots of ordinary, everyday people; just traveling to a government ordered census, scrambling for food and lodging when little was available. We are all in the story of Jesus birth. We must all be part of the story of the world that Jesus calls us to create – where everyone can find a place, everyone can find love and respect. I pray that you might know the love of your God, your family and your friends. I pray that you might find food and fellowship that will put the festive in the season. But I pray also that you will be moved by the gift of a child like no other. One that changed the world, changed hearts and asks us to do the same. There is much that we can do, if we would only find Tony’s heart beating in our chest.
The Rev. Canon Keith Nethery