Christmas in the Basement

Ninety nine years ago – almost to the day (it was actually the 30th of December, 1911) the great new building that was erected to house John Wanamaker’s department store was dedicated, after seven years of construction.  The building was designed by the famous Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, and was dedicated by President William Howard Taft, who must have been pleased that Wanamaker’s was the first department store in the country to house a restaurant.  That building still stands a few blocks from here, and, although the name of John Wanamaker has been removed from the store for years now, as it has changed hands several times, it still plays host to a light show that continues to be very much a part of Christmas in Philadelphia.  If it’s dazzle you want, you take your kids to the Comcast Center, but if it’s tradition you are after, you go to Macy’s, (and you pretend you are still at Wanamaker’s).

John Wanamaker, the founder and builder of that store was one of the richest and most powerful men in Philadelphia and in the nation.  His son, Rodman, took over the company and is credited for continuing the kind of revolutionizing business practices that his father had been famous for (Wanamaker’s was the first store to give a money-back guarantee if you were unsatisfied with your purchases), and for arranging for the installation of the enormous pipe organ in the Grand Court.  But Rodman, who had a kidney disease, lived only six years longer than his father.

By the time Rodman died in 1928, he had long since buried his wife Fernanda here at Saint Mark’s beneath the altar in the exquisite Lady Chapel he built for that purpose when she died at the turn of the century.  If you have never been here before, I suggest you peek in after mass or on the way back from communion to have a look at the work of beauty for which Mr. Wanamaker is responsible.  Rodman himself is buried in a spectacular way in one of two chapels at the base of a tower that serves as the family mausoleum at the Church of Saint James the Less, five and a half miles up the Schuylkill River from here.  His father, John, is buried in the other chapel.

The rolling hills above the river that were once countryside are now graveyards – there are cemeteries to the south, and to the north and east the city is a sort of graveyard of industry: the Tastycake Bakery building is there, the old Budd plant, and other hulking memorials to an age of industry in Philadelphia that is well and truly dead and buried.  Penn fishing reels are still made in a small factory nearby – but only a few of them: most of the reels are made overseas.

Across the street from the Wanamaker tombs, in the basement of the church hall, five bicycles were recently raffled off to kids from the neighborhood.  They were little kids’ bikes, with training wheels, and brightly colored paint jobs, and heavily padded handlebars.  I don’t think they were especially good or expensive bikes, but I’m sure the question of their quality would hardly matter to the kids who will ride them.  The bikes were donated to be gifts at the Christmas party that was taking place in the basement of that church hall: a Christmas party for the neighbors around the church, many of whom are aware that they are living alongside graveyards.  Those neighbors have seen the bakery and the plants close down, the jobs disappear, the homes foreclosed or abandoned and boarded up.  They can remember when Tastycake was hiring, but it is a distant memory. 

They have seen the drugs and the guys who push them show up on the street corners, where kids who have already failed at school have nothing to do but hang out.  You can see the school from the street corner, and you could be forgiven for thinking it is a prison: it looks a lot like one.  And your chances of learning much there are only a little better than they probably are in prison.

They have even seen the church shut down – five years ago, when after a dispute with the bishop the congregation pulled up stakes and moved away, locking the gates behind them, and bringing to an end the tutoring programs, and other ways they’d reached out to kids in the neighborhood.

With the gates locked and the lights off, and high walls surrounding the place, and a graveyard and the Wanamaker tombs on one side of the street by the church, the other side of the street – where the church hall is located – became another kind of graveyard, to add to the landscape of the dead and dying in the neighborhood.

But now, with a lot of help from Saint Mark’s, an effort is being made to unlock the gates around the old church hall, and to turn that old building and its grounds into a good school for kids from the neighborhood.  There are classrooms there already, with chalkboards and chalk and erasers, that have not been used in years, but which apparently have a longer half-life than some more modern educational tools (all the old computers there are useless!). There are desks and chairs and some books.  There is a chapel and a cross and a bible.   There is a big grassy area to play in.  And there is a big gym in the basement with hoops and some half-inflated basketballs, and where five little bicycles with training wheels were raffled off the other night during a neighborhood Christmas party.

I was supposed to go to that party, but I had two other events here in center city to attend the same evening, and so I missed it.  I didn’t know there were going to be bikes raffled off.  I didn’t know there would be a room full of kids who were happy to receive other presents that night, too.  I didn’t know what I’d be missing; I just missed it.

It’s easy to miss Christmas without even knowing it. And that’s not because of department stores and all the demands of shopping and baking and Christmas parties and everything else.  It’s easy to miss Christmas because we forget what God is like and what his power looks like.  We think that God must be like a slightly larger version of John Wanamaker – a great and distant figure of the past, who had access to whatever he wanted, a grand court to live in, a staff to do his bidding, able to call on the president of the United States when he needed him, as Wanamaker did.  We assume God could hire the best architects to build him the largest and finest buildings – he certainly seems to have done so in days gone by!  And if he was going to put his Son in charge of things, you’d know who he was: he’d carry on the traditions of his father, and build up his legacy, just as Rodman did.

But every Christmas, even as we find ourselves in the Grand Court listening to the carols on the great organ, and watching the lights, and leaning our backs up against the eagle, we remember that even if it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, Jesus is not likely to be found amongst the sweaters and handbags, perfumes, scarves and shoes of Wanamaker’s or any other store  - even with a money-back guarantee.

In fact, even in churches like this one, we have to set up a special place – a manger, where the bedding is straw, and there is room for the animals – because our own surroundings are too grand…

… and because it would be too difficult, or too unseemly, to bring you all into the basement here.  We’d have to stoop down under the pipes that run just by the entrance, reminding the person behind you to “watch your head.”  We’d look for the dingiest corner – the kind of place a mangy old cat might have made a bed for himself if he stole into the basement through an open window.  From there, we’d see where the figures for our manger scene spend most of their year, under a tarp, in a corner of the basement.

But once a year we haul those old figures upstairs and build a crude manger for them with straw in it, to help us remember that in his Son Jesus, God showed himself to be what you might call a basement God: a God who can be found in the dirt and the mud, among the castaway things that we can’t quite decide to throw away yet.  In Jesus, God showed that he was not only willing but interested in being found in places that John Wanamaker might never have stepped foot in.  And in Jesus God showed us a different kind of power – so awesome that the most powerful man of his day, King Herod, tried to recruit spies to find out about it so he could destroy it.

The Christmas story is many things, but it is always a story of the power of weakness.  It is always a correction to our way of thinking that power is force and greatness, and ammunition, and numbers, and kilowatts, and horsepower, and tons, and armor, and wealth, and gold, and frankincense, and myrrh – which don’t seem to have lasted the Holy Family very long, or even paid for Jesus’ college tuition.

The Christmas story reminds us that when we see power gone amok – as we can see every time we open the paper, or flip on the TV, or browse the web – and we wonder about it all…

… the Christmas story reminds us to go have a look in the basement and imagine a baby being born there who would teach the whole world to love one another, and would die in order to teach us what that love might look like.

And if I have one regret this Christmas, it is only that I didn’t make it to a church basement a few miles from here for a Christmas party where five bikes with training wheels were raffled off to five kids who will ride them around a neighborhood that might be nothing but a graveyard, but will seem like heaven to them the first time those training wheels come off and they feel themselves balanced, and flying over the pavement with the wind in their faces.

Because I never made it to the party, I don’t know who donated the five little bicycles.  I don’t know if anyone knows.  I like to think that it may have been the ghost of John Wanamaker, like some Dickensian spirit of Christmases past, present, and to come: a spirit who knows that we are likely to get stuck in the department store he built and never make it down to the basements where Christ is being born year after year because there is never any room at the inn.  I think of his ghost using an old ID card to get into the Macy’s storerooms in the basements of that great old building, and finding a few bicycles to bring up the river to the church nearest his grave, the basement nearest his tomb.   And I think of him pointing to the children who won those silly bikes in the raffle, with smiles on their faces, as if they don’t know they are surrounded by graveyards, surrounded by death in a neighborhood that has seen better days.

And I think old Wanamaker’s ghost looks down into that basement for a moment forgetting that he is already dead and buried, because the possibility of new life seems so real down there in that basement, as though it ought to be a manger lined with straw.

And I think John Wanamaker’s ghost would smile if he could show us that basement and the beaming children and their bikes, and offer it all to us as our Christmas gift, and he’d tell us this is a gift we may certainly return if we are not happy with it, and he’ll give us back every cent we paid for it.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

Christmas Eve 2010

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on December 25, 2010 .