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Midnight Clear Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 20 December 2010

Across the street from St. George’s, the ragged man was thinking:  It’s a cold one! I should go in. But the shelter bathrooms are busted, ‘cause they broke in and stole all the copper, and I reek. No fine ladies with boxes of food on 38th  . . . not on Christmas Eve on a Friday! Hungry, God! Better walk all night.

He saw people dressed in scarves, overcoats, hats, gloves. Collars up and boots crunching in new-fallen snow, hugging themselves and each other, leaning into the wind; bursts of cloudy talking, laughter; steadying themselves on the icy steps up to the big church doors, which they pulled open, feet stamping. He saw families, he saw couples, he saw men and women alone, but nobody saw him beneath a street light, standing on a sidewalk grate through which the rumbling subway sent up blasts of warmer air. Cheery light from inside the church broke the darkness when the red doors opened. He waited, looking left and right, until he saw no else coming. Why anybody came out on a night like this he didn’t know.

I used to know.

The headlines stacked in newsstands along Broadway were all about a STORM OF THE CENTURY.

It must be near midnight.

He wasn’t sure where he’d walk. East to the East or west to the Hudson; up to the Park or down to the Battery. He thought about sneaking down to the subway, finding some small space in a dark tunnel alcove. But this is dangerous – not just speeding trains or hungry rats, but people who live down there and fight you. He wanted no part of that tonight, with the chest pains flaring, taking his breath. He didn’t want to walk.

He looked over at St. George’s. A latecomer came running, slipping, almost falling, turning to climb the steps, slipping again. The homeless man watched, chuckling, then, quick as he could, followed the clumsy fellow into the church where he knew he’d not be welcome.

I was Catholic once.

Squinting through the flurries, he reached the door before it swung shut. He saw the other man unwind the scarf from around his neck and shake the snow from his hat. The man was looking around the crowded pews, then spotted a woman, mid-nave, waving, and hurried forward, almost slipping again.

Thomas Jonas, the homeless man, looked left and right and met the wary gaze of an usher, a tall, well-dressed white-haired man holding a long-handled collection basket like a halberd, who with a tilt of his head motioned Thomas to an empty bench at the back of the narthex. Thomas was not unhappy; this was a padded bench.

Better than those hard oaken pews.

He’d slept of an afternoon in those pews, usually one of the shorter ones in the north transept, the Gospel side.

O, God it’s warm in here.

Full-throated people were singing the entrance hymn, and the celebrants, with the lector and the servers, were turning to walk down the main aisle towards the altar. An elderly priest, robed in white-and-gold vestments, trailed behind, unsteady on a cane. He stopped to catch his breath. Father Michael, the rector, had insisted Monsignor James enter the altar area directly from the sacristy, but James was sure this was his last Midnight Mass and asked the others (it seemed more like an edict to the rector) to let him reach the chancel unattended and in God’s good time. Now he thought better of it and turned to head to one of the padded benches at the back. He saw Thomas Jonas and hobbled over to join him. The tall usher tried to redirect the old man, but the monsignor pulled his elbow free and even showed him the crook of his cane – a warning, a weapon – and the usher smiled and let the dear man he’d loved for fifty years sit down beside the bum he’d seen (and smelled!) these five minutes.

“Merry Christmas,” James whispered to Thomas.

Thomas was uneasy.

I shouldn’t be here.

Some shard of a thing once learned:

“And also with you.”

Monsignor James, still breathing heavily, looked Thomas squarely in his red-rimmed eyes, his own cloudy eyes laughing, white head nodding.

The Mass went on without them. After he had kissed the altar, Father Michael looked for Monsignor James and saw him sitting way at the back with a scruffy fellow he recognized as one who sometimes sought refuge in church, kneeling in pretended prayer, forehead on crossed arms, until exhaustion collapsed him into the pews and into snoring.

“Where will you spend the night?” Monsignor James asked a startled Thomas Jonas. “It’s a blizzard out there.”

“There are places I can go . . .”

The old man nodded.

Thomas added: “I am a Catholic . . .”

The monsignor smiled: “Me too.” He straightened his crooked body and leaned over to whisper into his bench mate’s ear.

“I’ll hear your confession now.”

What . . . now? Why doesn’t he just . . .

But the old priest had closed his eyes and inclined his ear towards Thomas, who whispered hoarsely: gin and sorrow. His aching heart was ready to explode.

Monsignor James Haloran spoke softly:

“Deinde, ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.”

The old priest’s heart raced too.

__
 

The rector broke protocol and hurried between the lines of communicants to the back of the sanctuary, where he found them, Thomas Jonas with his head resting on the shoulder of James Haloran. Both asleep? The monsignor’s face was serene; the bum’s tears had left clean streaks on his cheeks.

Father Michael elevated the host.

“The body of Christ.”

 

Brad Miner
is senior editor of The Catholic Thing. This morning he made a small online donation to the “Breadline” at St Francis of Assisi Church in New York City. Some similar program almost certainly exists near your home.
 
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Comments (8)Add Comment
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written by Scott Hesener, December 19, 2010
Lovely story, Brad. Thank you. Merry Christmas to you and yours.
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written by debby, December 20, 2010
i was waiting for this kind of post....
i love you dear brother, and all the family at TCT...
only Jesus can do this in our hearts, lives, eternal souls.
a Christ-piercing-through-all-darkness-to-dwell-with-us Christmas to you and all you hold dear,awaiting GOD with Mary...
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written by Grump, December 20, 2010
Nice story, but I hope the bum got a bath, a new set of clothes and a good meal. Spiritual sustenance can only take you so far in THIS world.
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written by Alana LaPerle, December 20, 2010
"Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said,..."For which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Stand up and walk'?" (Matt 9:4-5). Like the scribes, Grump, you have missed the point of the story. During the Christmas season many people -- "even the hypocrites" -- show love toward their fellow man in material things...and then brush past him the rest of the year. For which is easier to say, 'I love you,' or to say, 'wait for Christmas and I will notice you then'?
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written by Grump, December 20, 2010
Chapter 2

Filled with inexpressible joy, Thomas Jonas left the church and crossed the street.
But suddenly a cold blast of win hit him – a cruel reminder that he was still in this world. A world of hunger, pain and despair.
In a matter of minutes, Jonas found he could no longer stand. He was so weak from lack of food and chilled to the bone that he fell to the icy sidewalk, barely able to observe the many people who walked around him.
Soon he felt into unconsciousness – for how long he did not know – but then he woke up in a warm room with a stranger looking at him.
“I’m Thomas Jonas. Who are you?” Jonas whispered.
“My name is Sam Maritan,” the stranger responded.
“Are you a Catholic, too?” Jonas asked.
“No, I don’t have a religion, but when I see a man in need I know I must help him. So why don’t you take a warm bath and when you’re finished, I’ll have some warm new clothes you can wear and a hot meal waiting.”
So Jonas took a bath and dressed in his new warm clothes and sat at the table and ate meat and potatoes and bread and drank some win. It was all delicious and he felt his strength returning and a new warmth and a feeling of peace.
“Thank you, Sam, you are indeed a good man,” he said, tears forming in his eyes.
“You’re welcome, Thomas. How could I leave you on that sidewalk?”
Jonas blinked back more tears. “So many others did; they even crossed the street to avoid me,” he said.
“Well,” Good Sam replied, “Although I am not a Christian, I believe it was your Founder who once told a similar story and somehow I never forgot it.”
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written by debby, December 20, 2010
hey.....i thought they died together, in peace, in Christ, reconciled to God and the whole world......a NY bum face on the Good Thief.....why all the criticism?
ykes!
IF there is a 2nd chapter, Fr. took Jonas back to the rectory, not only gave him A meal and A bed, but i believe Victor Hugo wrote that the priest "bought your soul...now go live life..."
and btw, social work never replaces soul work. just ask Mother Teresa. dear grump, your "good Sam" needs to do more than remember a story. he needs to discover his only "good" is from Him. maybe for the new year you could ask for HOPE as a new identity...or JOY??? life on this planet is too hard and short to walk around saying you are His but being grumpy...LIFT UP YOUR FACE, SALVATION IS COMING
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written by Bill, December 20, 2010
Thank you for a well written vignette, Mr. Miner. I could tell by the photograph of the women with covered heads, the altar BOYS facing ad orientem (did I miss the Priest?) and the priest knowing that Jonas's Confession was IMPORTANT that this had to be a TRADITIONAL MASS, because only in this context would any of it have made sense.
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written by Austin Ruse, December 20, 2010
Wow. Made me sniffle on the Acela.

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