Christmas lesson in a West Philadelphia thrift shop

As we journey through the Advent and Christmas Season, which extends through the Baptism of the Lord on Jan. 9, now is a good time to reflect for a moment on the depth of what we are celebrating. A friend of mine from West Philadelphia runs a thrift shop on Chestnut Street. The proceeds help support his ministry to and with children at risk living in that area. He is a very faith-based person, who always reads and lives the Gospel in light of the poor, since Jesus, and those courageous enough to follow him, spent so much time among people who were poor, and since Jesus spoke so often about poverty and wealth – economic justice and injustice. The thrift shop even has a little chapel, gathering folks for weekend services, and for anyone who seeks quiet time amidst the noise and chaos of Chestnut Street. I find this man very inspirational. Hospitality, humor, heart and humility mark this man of faith and grace-filled action.
He once told me that his childhood was difficult.  He had attention deficit disorder during a time when no one knew much about attention deficits. He was also dyslexic. His teachers made him feel that he was stupid, that he would never learn, that he would never amount to much. He would spend many years walking with his head down, hands in his pockets, hardly ever creating eye contact with another person.
During one Christmas Season a while back, my thrift shop buddy was listening to Christmas hymns — hymns that he had heard many, many times before. This time he heard the lyrics as if for the first time.
The hymn was “O, Holy Night.” The liberating line comes near the beginning: “Till he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.”
“O, Holy Night” is my favorite Christmas hymn. Yet, as often as I have listened to this sacred hymn, I know that I never really heard those words. On Christmas Eve 1979, three months before his assassination, Archbishop Oscar Romero said that “we must not seek the child Jesus in the pretty figures of our Christmas cribs. We must seek him among the undernourished children who have gone to bed at night with nothing to eat, among the poor newsboys who will sleep covered with newspapers in doorways.”
With the Incarnation, we have the dwelling of God among and within us, the sanctification of all humanity and creation, the radiance of every human being, the Good News revealed in the birth of an ordinary God, of very limited finances, without proper shelter, in swaddling clothes, yet a light for those in darkness, a straight path for those who wander, warmth for the cold, bread for the hungry, welcome for the excluded, and hope for the fearful.  From God, the Savior reveals a demanding, purifying, transforming mission for those who dare bear his name – a mission rooted in “forgive and love one another as I have loved you; love your enemies and pray for your persecutors; turn the other cheek; if you have two coats, give one to the person who has none; you are salt of the earth and the light of the world; seek and love the invisible Lazarus; put away your sword; blessed are the peace-makers; wash one another’s feet; and do this in memory of me.”
We pray in heart-felt thanksgiving that in God’s appearance our soul felt its worth. We are indeed, always and everywhere, worthy of God’s unconditional love and mercy. What a gift! We also pray that we recognize the God-given worth of every single soul of all our sisters and brothers – the unborn child, the inmate, the undocumented immigrant, the homeless one, the unemployed, the uninsured, the under-insured, the hungry, the naked, the sick, the downcast, the cast down – all those with whom Jesus identifies, when he says in Matthew 25, “Whatsoever you do to those who are considered least, you do to Me.”
My West Philly pal really graced me that Christmas Season. His story also nudged me, as all prophets do. Does his story make sense to you? Stop by his thrift shop on Chestnut Street, between 42nd and 43rd. I won’t give you his name. For now, he represents all humanity, all who hunger to have their soul feel its worth, and who seek to embrace the God-given dignity and worth within all of God’s children.
“Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth. In his name, all oppression will cease.” What a Holy Night of Hope and Love we joyfully await!
Larry DiPaul is director of Office of Life and Justice, Diocese of Camden.

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