By Rev Robin Martin
We come here tonight to remember a story that’s so familiar to most of us that it’s almost a part of our DNA. We’ve heard it so many times through the years and, perhaps, participated in the acting out of it on numerous occasions when we were younger and as the children of this parish did just a few days ago. We’ve probably heard or read and laughed about some of the funny and delightful ways that children sometimes mishear the words or get the details confused. We know this story. We know it so thoroughly that we can forget that there are always people who are hearing it for the first time. This is a true story about someone hearing the story for the first time, and then making it his own. It was shared with me several years ago by my colleague Wendy Bellis at St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church over in Warminster, Bucks County.
She said that back in 1994, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, two Americans answered an invitation from the Russian Department of Education to come and teach morals and ethics based on Biblical principles in their public schools. They were also invited into prisons, businesses, the police and fire departments…and into a large orphanage. About a hundred boys and girls lived in this government-run home, taken in because they were abandoned and/or abused. On one of their visits to the orphanage, the American volunteers told the Christmas story.
They said that when they arrived and the children were gathered, they proceeded to tell them the story of Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem. The children heard how, when they found no place to stay, they settled into a stable where the baby Jesus was born and placed in a manger. Throughout the telling of the story, both the staff and the children in the orphanage listened in rapt amazement, some literally sitting on the edge of their chairs and hanging on to every word.
After telling the story it was, of course, arts and crafts time. Each child was given three small pieces of cardboard to make a manger, and a small paper square cut from yellow napkins one of the Americans had brought because they couldn’t find any other colored paper. Following the instructions they were given, each child tore the paper into strips and laid them in the manger for straw. Small squares of flannel, cut from a well-worn nightgown one of their visitors had thrown in her suitcase as she packed for the journey to Russia, were used for the baby’s blanket. A baby was cut from tan felt the Americans had also brought from home.
As the children were busy assembling their mangers, the Americans walked around the room to see if anyone needed help, but all of them seemed to be managing pretty well. Finally, one of the storytellers came to Mischa, a little boy who looked to be about six years old. He was finished with the project, but his was different. Instead of one baby in the manger, he had two. The American called for a translator so she could ask why.
Crossing his arms in front of him and looking at his handiwork the child began to repeat the story he’d just been told with great seriousness. For such a young child who’d just heard the Christmas story for the first time, he repeated what he’d been told with remarkable accuracy…until he got to the part where Mary was putting the baby Jesus in the manger. At that point, he began to elaborate.
He said, “When Maria laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked if I had a place to stay. I told him I have no momma and papa, so I have no place to stay. Then Jesus told me I could stay with him. But I told him I couldn’t because I didn’t have a gift to give him like everyone else did. But I wanted to stay with Jesus so much. So I thought about what I had that maybe I could use for a gift. And I thought that maybe if I kept him warm, that would be a good gift. So I asked Jesus, ‘If I could keep you warm, will that be a good enough gift?’ And Jesus told me, ‘If you keep me warm that will be the best gift anybody ever gave me.’ So I got into the manger, and then Jesus looked at me and he told me I could stay with him always.”
As Mischa finished his story, tears began to well up in his eyes and roll down his cheeks, and he bowed his head and sobbed. In hearing this story for the first time, the little boy had finally found someone who would never abuse or abandon him…someone who would stay with him always.
I find myself wondering what’s become of little Mischa who is at least in his mid to late twenties by now. I wonder what kinds of hardships and deprivations he’s had to endure since that day in 1994 when he heard the story of Christmas for the first time. I wonder what blessings and joy he’s experienced in these intervening years. I wonder if there has been anyone who reinforced his intuitive knowledge that Jesus is the one who will never desert or hurt him regardless of what his life may hold.
I’m grateful for Mischa and for whoever preserved this story. Hearing it gives you and me the chance to hear the old, old story from a different perspective. It gives us a chance to see the manger with new eyes…a manger big enough to contain all of us.
Each of us comes to this place and to this table with the capacity to offer the gift God most desires. That gift is nothing more…and nothing less than to embrace the world in God’s Name, to be the hands and feet, the heart and imagination of the Divine in the midst of all the suffering and alienation that permeates the creation. That gift is to become people whose compassion and justice and generosity reflect that of the great Giver of all gifts. That gift is to grow into the full stature of Christ and become the fully human beings we are created to be. It’s not a gift to be shopped for and purchased. It’s a gift to be lived out.