In the reading that our family follows for Advent, the second candle that we light is called the Bethlehem Candle, which “shines to show us that Christ came to us in the quiet of a stable in Bethlehem.” So that week we focus on baby Jesus. On his humble beginnings. That He is a gift to us.
As we read and discussed this concept, Brennan asked, “What is our gift to God, Mommy?”
He asked as sincerely as only a five-year-old can.
I had been wondering how I’d transition into reading the Christmas book I had chosen to read to the kids that night, Papa Panov’s Special Day. I had just checked that book out from the library and was excited to read one of my childhood favorites to them. I was reading it whether it fit the Second Sunday of Advent theme or not!
I love when these perfectly unplanned moments arise. The theme of Papa Panov was the perfect answer to Brennan’s question.
“What a great question,” I say to Brennan, “In fact, the book I’m about to read to you ~ after you get your pajamas on and get ready for bed ~ talks about that.”
So, the kids eagerly ran off to get ready for bed. Fifteen minutes later we were all gathered in the boy’s room to read the book.
“A long time ago, almost too long ago to remember,” I begin, “there lived an old shoemaker. His home was far away, almost too far to imagine, in a small Russian village.”
This story goes on to tell about Papa Panov, who “was not very rich…but neither was he very poor.”
It was Christmas Eve. Papa Panov, who was typically quite happy and who would“sing and whistle and shout a cheery greeting to people passing by,”was actually feeling sad and lonely. He missed his wife (who had died many years before) and his children (who had all grown up and gone away).
In his sadness and loneliness, he took out his bible, sat in his chair, and began reading the Christmas story. He read about how “a little boy, Jesus, was born, not in a good warm house but in a cowshed because there wasn’t any room at the inn.”
“‘Dearie, dearie,” said Papa Panov (who lived in his one-room shoe shop), ‘If they had come here, they could have slept on my good bed and I would have covered the little boy with my patchwork quilt…'”
He continued to read about how “the rich men travelled across the desert to bring wonderful presents for the little boy Jesus…”
“‘Dearie, dearie’ sighed Papa Panov, ‘if Jesus came here, I shouldn’t have anything to give him'” Then he smiled as he remembered something. He took down a box from a shelf. “He opened the box and unwrapped a pair of tiny shoes. Papa Panov held one small shoe in each hand…They were the best shoes he had ever made… ‘That’s what I would have given him,’ he murmured.”
As he continued to read the Christmas story, Papa Panov (who was very tired) fell asleep in his chair.
Suddenly, he heard a voice, “Papa, Papa Pavov!” he heard. “‘Who is it?” cried Papa Panov, looking around him and seeing no one.
“‘Papa Panov,’ said the voice again. ‘You wished that you had seen me, that I had come to your little shop and that you could bring me a gift. Look out into the street from dawn to dusk tomorrow and I will come. Be sure you recognize me for I shall not say who I am.'”
Papa Panov did not go to sleep that night. He wanted to be awake so as not to miss the first person to pass by in the morning. As dawn approached, he made a pot of coffee and waited.
Finally, he saw a figure coming down the street. “Perhaps this was Jesus,” he thought. But it was only the old roadsweeper. Papa Panov was frustrated and disappointed. He really wanted it to be Jesus. But as the man neared, Papa Panov felt sorry for him. He looked very cold. And how terrible to have to work on Christmas Day!
So Papa Panov opened the door and called out, “Hey old chap!…How about a cup of coffee? You look frozen to the bone.”
So the roadsweeper came in to the warm shop. “It’s very kind of you, very kind,” he said.
Papa Panov continued watching for Jesus throughout the day. Many people passed his shop throughout the day. “Merry Christmas, Papa Panov!” many of them called out. The old shoemaker would nod and smile back. He knew them all by name, but none of them were Jesus.
He then saw someone he had never seen before. It was a young woman carrying a baby. “She was very thin, her face was tired and her clothes were shabby.”
As Papa Panov watched her, he called out, “Hello, why don’t you come in and warm yourself?”
“‘You’re very kind,’ she said, as he stood aside for her to enter his little shop.”
She refused the bread and soup he offered her, but willingly accepted the milk he offered for her child. As he fed the child milk, Papa Panov noticed the baby had no shoes.
“…A thought came to [Papa Panov’s] mind. He pushed it away ~ but it came back…The tiny pair of shoes he had made so long ago ~ they might fit the baby. So Papa Panov got them down from the shelf and tried them on the child’s feet. They fitted exactly. Perfect!”
After the mother and child left, Papa Panov resumed his perch by the window. Hours passed, but still no Jesus. He began to be afraid. “Perhaps Jesus had come and he had not recognized him. Perhaps he had passed by quickly when Papa Panov had turned away just for a second to poke the fire or boil the soup!”
As he sat back in his chair that night he said to himself,”‘It was only a dream after all. I wanted to believe it so much; I wanted him to come.’ And two great tears welled up behind his spectacles and filled his eyes, so that he could hardly see.”
“At once it seemed as if there was someone in the room. Through his tears Papa Panov seemed to see a long line of people passing across the little shop. The roadsweeper was there and the woman with her child ~ all the people he had seen and spoken to that day.”
“And as they passed him by they whispered, one by one, ‘Didn’t you see me? Didn’t you see me, Papa Panov?'”
“‘Who are you?’ cried the old shoemaker, struggling out of his chair, ‘Who are you? Tell me.'”
“And then came the same voice as the night before… ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me water, I was cold and you took me in. These people you have helped today ~ all the time you were helping them, you were helping me!'”
“‘Dearie, dearie,’ said Papa Panov slowly, pulling at his long grey moustache. ‘So he came after all.'”
“So,” I say to the kids as I close the book, “how does this answer Brennan’s question about what we can give God?”
Of course, they got the message: we can love God by loving others. Giving to others is giving to God. It doesn’t matter your age. It doesn’t matter where you live. It doesn’t matter how much money you have.
Long after the children are in bed, I’m left with the simplistically powerful message of Papa Panov. It is a beautiful reminder to me of the importance of caring for others. What I’m struck most with is that it can be so simple. I often feel like I need to sign up to do “great things” (volunteer at a soup kitchen, sign up for a big church-wide event to “care for others,” etc.). Those things, though they are very good and can be excellent tools and activities through which to teach children how to serve and care (and can be truly heartfelt and helpful and meaningful), sometimes can become one more thing on my “to do” list. Have I cared for others this season? Check.
I want to work on simply loving others. Of having an ongoing spirit and attitude of caring: Engaging with the other moms in the kindergarten pick-up line. Talking to the college neighbors who rent the home across from ours and baking cookies for them. Sharing what I have with someone in need. Showing interest in those people whose paths cross my daily life.
I want my children (and myself!) to see everyone as potential “Jesus’s.” That as we are waiting for Him (to truly meet Him face to face some day), we are caring for people along the way. Whether we do it in large venues for big groups of people, or in small venues for one single person. Even a family member (maybe at times, especially a family member!)
As Advent is over and all the that goes with it (both the beautiful and the crazy!), may this simple message of the Bethlehem candle ~ and Papa Panov ~ linger on throughout the year. May Brennan’s question be at the forefront of my mind: What is my gift to God?
May I be looking for Him everyday, in my every day life.
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”
The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” ~ Matthew 25:35-40