As you settle there in your pew, I ask you to have quiet mind this morning. I want you to listen to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, to really listen to his Advent greeting. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:4-7).
My husband, Andrew, was in New York City a few weeks ago, and received a gift in an unlikely place—the backseat of taxi cab. It was from his cabbie, a 74-year-old Jewish man born and raised on the Lower East side. He asked Andrew what he did for a living. When Andrew told him he writes magazine stories, the man said, “Ah, you like stories? I’ll tell you a story!” So from the West 80’s all the way down to the lower Bowery an Advent tale was born.
The cabbie proceeded to tell Andrew that just that morning, after seeing the somewhat odd spectacle of two Hassidim admiring the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree; he had been reminded of his “Momma.”
Momma, he said, had fled Russia in late 1800’s with her parents and emigrated to the U.S. The three of them were the only members of their extended family who had survived the pogroms. As a girl, Momma had witnessed oppressive anti-Semitism and unspeakable horrors—internal displacement, refugee life, famine, family members killed before her very eyes—all enacted under the auspices of the Czar’s Christian Cross. Not surprisingly, she had carried with her into the New World a visceral fear and loathing of all Christian iconography. Christmas was particularly difficult for her; every Christmas tree she saw—in a living room window, or in a store—felt like a jeer, an insult aimed at her personally.
The cabbie explained that the Lower East side neighborhood in which he grew up was a great ethnic hodgepodge. His family lived in a tenement below a Roman Catholic family—Mr. and Mrs. Tartaglia and their three daughters. Mrs. Tartaglia was a lovely neighbor and a lovely woman. “If a Hollywood producer had been walking the streets of the Lower East side in 1935,” the cabbie claimed, “Sophia Loren would never have happened!” The cabbie also mentioned that his father used to refer to Mrs. Tartaglia, with a twinkle in his eye, as “that Italian Rose in full bloom.”
Unfortunately, Mr. Tartaglia was nothing like his wife. He was, in fact, an explosive and often violent man. The cabbie said that they used to hear terrible yelling—and more—coming from the apartment above. In the days after these fights, Mrs. Tartaglia would appear in the neighborhood wearing a dark veil over her face to hide the bruises. And yet it seemed that tormenting his wife was not enough for Mr. Tartaglia. He also enjoyed anguishing his daughters—and one of the ways he did this was by refusing to celebrate Christmas. “A scheme to get people to spend their money,” he called it. This was a logical extension of his contempt for the Catholic Church which he refused to attend—although he allowed his wife and daughters to worship on Sundays. For years, the cabbie said, he watched the Tartaglia girls proceed through the Christmas season with glum faces.
But then one December afternoon when the cabbie was eight years old, he was doing schoolwork in his room when he heard the front door fly open, followed by a loud rustling in the hall. He went to see. There was his Momma—the woman who had feared and loathed everything that she thought Christianity stood for all her life—bent over, huffing and puffing, dragging…an enormous Christmas tree into the back room of their apartment.
“Momma?” her boy asked. “Say nothing!” she commanded. “Help me carry this into the back room!”
He did, and when they had erected the tree onto its base, Momma walked straight out the front door. The boy was at a loss. Several hours later, Momma returned with an armful of boxes, and again walked to the back room. He watched as she opened one of the boxes, which was full of glass bulbs and ginger bread men and candy canes, and she began hanging them on the tree. The other boxes were gift-wrapped with bows, and these she laid in a circle around the base of the tree.
For fifteen minutes, the young boy watched his mother in stunned silence. Finally, he asked quietly, “Are we still Jewish?” “Hush now!” she told him.
But when her husband returned from work several hours later, he too beheld the spectacle in the back room of the apartment, turned his eyes to his wife, and asked, “Are we still Jewish?” “Hush!” she said.
And so, for a time, nothing was said. But later, over dinner, Momma once again raised her finger as her husband was speaking and said, “Hush!” There was silence. Above them they could hear the sounds of Mr. Tartaglia opening and closing the door to the upstairs apartment, descending the stairs and leaving for his nightshift. Once he had left the building, Momma rose from her chair, walked to the front door of the apartment and ascended the stairs. A minute later, she reappeared—with Mrs. Tartaglia and her three young girls in tow. None of the Tartaglias had ever been in the downstairs apartment, the cabbie said. They looked confused and not a little bit alarmed.
“Come,” Momma said to them. “Come!”
She led Mrs. Tartaglia to the back room of the apartment and quietly opened the door, revealing the tree with all of its spangled decorations and the presents beneath it. “Here!” she said.
“What is this?” Mrs. Tartaglia said after a while. “Are you…still Jewish?”
“No,” Momma said. “This is for you. This is where you will celebrate your Christmas.”
The cabbie told Andrew that Mrs. Tartaglia and her girls knew nothing of Momma’s personal history or that of her family—and no one ever told them—but they still, all of them, burst into tears. Their prayers had been answered.
Now do you understand Paul’s words? Do they resonate in your heart? “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
The cabbie went on explain that throughout the Christmas season, whenever Mr. Tartaglia was out of the house, Mrs. Tartaglia and her daughters were free to come downstairs and celebrate their Christmas as they wished, in their tradition. And so they did, that year, and in the following years that they lived upstairs—secretly, deliciously—in the home of a woman who perhaps received the greatest gift of all—the peace of God. With God’s help she was able to forgive the world of her childhood; she was able to overcome her own fear and pain, and…see through to a God who she could claim, too. I think that the peace of God overwhelmed her. Her family did not understand her actions, maybe she didn’t either—but that’s the point.
The peace of God surpasses all understanding. The Lord is near. John the Baptist proclaims it. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. Do whatever is true; whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable for the Lord is near. I know this is not the conclusion of the Eucharist but it’s a fitting time to give you this blessing taken from our Epistle this morning: May the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord; and the blessing God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you, and remain with you always. Amen.