This morning, I’m going to start by telling you a story, The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by Susan Wojciechowski.Don’t be fooled by the title, though. This is very much an Advent story.
The children in the village called him Jonathan Gloomy because he always walked around hunched over like he was carrying a great weight. He uttered and sputtered, grumbled and griped about everything from the church bells to children playing. He never laughed, he rarely spoke and when he did, it was usually a growl. He was the very best woodcarver in the valley, though. He lived by himself in his shop on the edge of town.
One day, in early December, the Widow McDowell, who was new in town, knocked at his door with her seven-year-old son, Thomas. She wanted to hire him to carve a nativity set because hers had been lost when she moved. Her grandfather had carved it for her when she was just a girl and she couldn’t imagine Christmas without it.
“Christmas is pish-posh,” Jonathan muttered, but he agreed to take the job – no promises that it would be done in time, though.
A few days later, they were at his door again. Thomas wanted to watch Jonathan work, because he wanted to be a wood carver one day.
Reluctantly, he agreed, as long as the boy promised to be quiet and not squirm. The widow had brought a small offering of warm cornbread for his trouble. She sat in the corner knitting while Thomas watched Mr. Toomey work.
Thomas did his absolute best to be quiet and still, but he just couldn’t completely contain himself and felt the need to correct Jonathan as he was carving the sheep – his were happy sheep, Thomas told him. Jonathan harrumphed, “pish-posh. Sheep are sheep. They can’t be happy.”
That night, after a supper of boiled potato and cornbread, Jonathan continued working by the fire until he had the sheep just right. Every few days, the Widow McDowell and Thomas came back to watch Jonathan work. And each time, she brought some homemade treat; raisin buns, molasses cookies. And each time, Thomas told Jonathan what he was doing wrong; how his cows were proud, or his angel was important, and Joseph was serious.
And each time he heard the knock on the door, Jonathan stood up a little straighter, brushed the crumbs from his beard, straightened the house a little more, and greeted them a little less coldly and eventually even warmly. One day, he even gave Thomas a piece of wood and taught him a little about how to carve.
Every evening, after they left; after supper of boiled potato and raisin buns or some other treat, he sat by the fire and carved; working on a proud cow or an important angel.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, the Widow McDowell and Thomas came with presents: the red scarf she had been knitting during their visits, and the little bird that Thomas had carved. That night, Jonathan worked all night on the last two figures, Mary and Jesus. He made sketch after sketch until he had a pile of crumpled paper on the floor. Finally, he pulled out the only picture he owned to use as a model – a picture of his wife and little child. They had died many years before.
In the morning, he went to the Widow McDowell’s door to give her the completed set. And then as the bells of Christmas pealed, they walked together to the church. And for the first time in many years, Jonathan Toomey threw back his head and laughed.
Last week, Rev. Natalie talked about Advent as a season of Active Hope. Maybe this is what a practice of active hope would look like.
Like kindness in the face of grumpiness, not just once, but over and over. It can look like perseverance in the face of setbacks. Like reaching out, speaking up, even in the face of resistance. It can look like taking another step, and another and another and another, even when we stumble or the way is rocky or we don’t know exactly where it goes.
This morning, we heard how Mark tells the story of Jesus, “The beginning of the Good News…” What he has to tell us is just the beginning.
What an act of hope! The Good News will continue past the terrified women and the empty tomb. He knows it’s just the beginning, even though he doesn’t know where it will go. The story is still unfolding; it’s the story we continue to tell.
We don’t need to know or understand the wilderness before we can bring light and comfort into it. Sometimes it only requires a small act of kindness or two. A phone call or a note or a plate of cookies. But it does require that we slow down enough to pay attention, to see through the walls and see Christ in the most unlikely places and people. To Practice Hope.
i Susan Wojciechowski, The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan
Toomey, illustrated by P.J. Lynch. (Cambridge, MA:
Candlewick Press, 1995).