[Is.50:4-7; Phil.2:6-11; Mt.27:11-54]
As we enter Holy Week, we are all invited to witness the most remarkable events that have ever occurred in history. Today, let’s prepare ourselves by reflecting quietly on Walter Wangerin Jr’s famous story of The Ragman. [i]
What does it say to you?
Early one Friday morning I noticed a young man, handsome and strong, walking through the back streets of the city, pulling an old cart filled with bright, new clothes. He called out, ‘Rags! Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags!’
The air was foul in these dark streets, but as he called out, the air seemed to become cleaner. ‘Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags!’
He was tall and muscular, with intelligent eyes. I wondered what he was doing and I followed him. There was a woman sitting outside her house, crying into a handkerchief. She was miserable, heartbroken. Her body may have been alive, but her soul wanted to die.
The Ragman stopped his cart. Quietly he walked over to her, stepping around tin cans and old rubbish. ‘Give me your rag,’ he said gently, ‘and I’ll give you another’. The woman saw his compassionate eyes and stopped crying. The Ragman took her handkerchief and replaced it with a clean new cloth. As she looked at it, the Ragman slowly kissed her forehead and returned to his cart.
As he pulled his cart again, the Ragman did something strange: he put her old handkerchief to his face and he began to weep, just as she did. But she’d stopped crying and now she had a look of wonder on her face. ‘That’s amazing’, I thought.
‘Rags! Rags! New rags for old!’ said the Ragman, weeping.
A girl was sitting on the kerbside, her head wrapped in a bandage. She was bleeding. The weeping Ragman stopped and took a beautiful yellow hat from his cart. ‘Give me your rag,’ he said softly. He took her bandage and put it on himself. The girl’s head healed, while the Ragman’s head started to bleed. He put the hat on the girl’s head, and returned to his cart.
‘Rags! I take old rags!’ cried the sobbing, bleeding Ragman. ‘New rags for old!’ He was moving faster now. He stopped in front of a man leaning against a telephone pole. ‘Are you going to work?’ he asked.
The man shook his head. The Ragman asked, ‘Do you have a job?’
‘Are you crazy?’ he replied, and he showed the Ragman his missing right arm.
‘Give me your jacket,’ said the Ragman, ‘and I’ll give you mine.’ The one-armed man took off his jacket, and so did the Ragman. When the other man put on the Ragman’s jacket he had two good arms, but the Ragman only had one. ‘Go to work’ said the Ragman, and he returned to his cart.
Then he saw an old drunk lying sick and unconscious under a blanket. He took the blanket and wrapped it around himself, and left new clothes for the drunk.
Now I had to run to keep up with the Ragman. He was weeping and bleeding and he struggled to pull his cart with one arm. He was old and sick, drunk and stumbling, and yet he moved quickly through the streets.
It hurt to see his sorrow, and yet I needed to see where he was going. The old Ragman finally came to a garbage dump. He climbed to the top of a small hill made from the rubbish of a thousand lives, and he cleared a little space.
With a deep sigh, he made a bed from the contents of his cart and he lay down on it, pillowing his head on a handkerchief and a jacket, covering his old bones with a blanket. His eyes wept; his bandage bled. And then he died.
Oh, how I cried to witness that death! I sat down in an old, abandoned car, mourning and weeping because I’d come to love that Ragman. I’d watched him work wonders and change lives so profoundly that it didn’t seem fair that he was gone.
I fell asleep, and I slept all through Friday night and all through Saturday. On Sunday morning, I was awakened by a blinding light. As I blinked and opened my eyes, I saw the greatest wonder of all.
There was the Ragman, carefully folding the blanket. He had a scar on his forehead, but he was healthy, with no sign of sorrow or old age, and all his rags shined bright and clean.
I got out of the car, trembling from what I’d seen. With my head down, I walked up to him and told him my name with shame. I said, ‘Please take my tired old rags and make me new again.’
And he did. He took the tired old rags of my existence and he replaced them with the new clothes of a life spent following Him.
[i] Walter Wangerin, The Ragman, in Ragman and Other Cries of Faith. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2004 (abridged).